Love of Literature, England Come Together in Ideal Job

Eaton attracts new viewers to PBS' Masterpiece
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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

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