Fifth Estater

Love of Literature, England Come Together in Ideal Job

Eaton attracts new viewers to PBS' Masterpiece 12/17/2012 12:01:00 AM Eastern

Rebecca Eaton

Title:

Executive producer, Masterpiece, PBS

Education:

B.A., English literature, Vassar College, 1969

Employment Highlights:

Production assistant/ secretary, BBC World Service, 1969-71

Production assistant, associate producer, producer, WGBH Boston (radio and TV stations), 1971-85

Current title since 1985

Personal:

born Nov. 7, 1947; daughter, Katherine

Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of the drama anthology television
series Masterpiece on PBS, says when she started her job
more than 27 years ago, most people were surprised to learn she
was not a "little white-haired British woman."

“I am not little or English, but I am whitehaired,”
she jokes.

Eaton has always had a passion for England
and literature, and her job is the perfect marriage
between the two, she says. “It was tailormade
for me—I can’t believe my luck.”

When former Masterpiece Theatre exec producer
Joan Wilson passed away in 1985, Eaton
applied for and was named to the then-position
of EP, Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!, where
she has gone on to deliver series including Prime
Suspect
, Bleak House, Inspector Morse and The
Complete Jane Austen
. She named Middlemarch
and The Buccaneers among her favorite projects.

More recently, Eaton brought audiences the
hits Downton Abbey, about an aristocratic family
in the post-Edwardian era, and Sherlock, a
reinvention of Sherlock Holmes, which have
both had critical and ratings success.

Both series have also become tentpoles for
Masterpiece, which produces, coproduces or acquires
mostly British programming, Eaton says.
She credits the two shows for increased viewer
attention and award recognition—they led
Masterpiece’s 37 Emmy nominations last July.

Downton Abbey, created by Julian Fellowes
and coproduced with Carnival Films, premiered
in January 2011 on PBS and averaged
5 million total viewers (including repeats and
online streaming), with the second-season average
rising to 7 million viewers.

The show’s third season premieres Jan. 6,
and PBS recently announced it has picked up
a fourth season. As for a potential end date,
Eaton says nothing is concrete and jokes,
“That is a question I don’t want to ask—I don’t
want to know the answer.”

Eaton also says she can’t precisely “nail
down” why Downton has resonated with such a
wide audience, but says Fellowes “has figured
out the perfect way to make primetime adult
costume drama addictive.”

Detective series Sherlock, coproduced with
Hartswood Films Production for BBC Wales,
has also driven new audiences to PBS. The second
season averaged 4.4 milion total viewers,
and the third season will likely air in late 2013
or ’14.

With 50 to 75 potential projects coming
through her office each year, Eaton says,
choosing is subjective. “My decisions come
from 25 years of knowing what audiences like
and what didn’t work. I don’t have a checklist.
I read a script and I wait for a feeling. And if
I get that feeling, I know we should do it.”
But she says turning down the 1995 remake
of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth was
one of her biggest mistakes: “I will never turn
down anything with Firth or Jane Austen.”

Austen is among Eaton’s favorite authors,
and she points to her childhood for fostering
her love of novels. She grew up in Pasadena,
Calif., and spent summers in Maine; her father
was dean of students at the California Institute
of Technology and taught Shakespeare
and English, and her mother was an actress.
“We read all the time, and I would go to the
movies and the theater,” Eaton says.

After high school, Eaton attended Vassar College,
graduating in 1969 with a degree in English
literature. She was one of two graduates accepted
into a program working in England for the BBC
World Service radio program, where she served
as a secretary and production assistant.

In 1971, Eaton returned to the U.S. to work
at public radio station WGBH and eventually
accepted a job in its TV arm, serving as PA, associate
producer and producer on a variety of
shows before being named to her current role.

Eaton considers Henry Becton, former
WGBH president, to be one of her greatest
mentors; he gave Eaton her first job in television
and the position at Masterpiece.

In 2008, Eaton decided to reinvigorate the
Masterpiece brand. “It was iconic but fading,”
she says. She dropped the “Theatre” and split
the brand into three genres—Masterpiece Mystery!,
Masterpiece Classic and Masterpiece Contemporary
so audiences would know what to
expect from the programming. Priorities were
social media, streaming and making series
accessible to younger viewers—all with the
Corp. for Public Broadcasting’s funding help.

“We all heaved a great sigh of relief on Nov. 7
[the day after the presidential election],” she
says, alluding to Republican candidate Mitt
Romney’s desire to eliminate funding for CPB.

Paula A. Kerger, president and CEO of PBS,
credits Eaton with keeping Masterpiece relevant.
“She’s so deftly shepherded the Masterpiece
brand over the course of 25 years, ensuring
that the series remains as contemporary as
it is beloved,” Kerger says.

After realizing the unpredictability of corporate
funding, Eaton helped create the Masterpiece
Trust in 2011. It allows donors to give
directly to Masterpiece, and donations can also
be shared with local stations.

“The most consistently supportive people
were viewers, and they cited Masterpiece again
and again as the reason why they watched
public TV or joined their local public TV stations,”
Eaton explains.

Because her work requires constant screenings,
Eaton says she watches very little TV,
but she makes time for New England Patriots
football (she adores quarterback Tom Brady)
and Showtime’s Homeland, especially because
of star Damian Lewis, who starred in Masterpiece’s
The Forsyte Saga
. “I feel as if I actually
own him,” she jokes.

E-mail comments to
srobbins@nbmedia.com and follow
her on Twitter: @stephrobbins

Rebecca Eaton

Title:

Executive producer, Masterpiece, PBS

Education:

B.A., English literature, Vassar College, 1969

Employment Highlights:

Production assistant/ secretary, BBC World Service, 1969-71

Production assistant, associate producer, producer, WGBH Boston (radio and TV stations), 1971-85

Current title since 1985

Personal:

born Nov. 7, 1947; daughter, Katherine

September
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