Rebecca Eaton, who took the reins of PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! series in 1985, reinvigorated Masterpiece with its relaunch in 2008 and the debuts of Downton Abbey and Sherlock in the following years. Though Masterpiece will face its first year without the Crawleys and their staff since Downton’s premiere in 2010, Eaton points to three Sherlock films slated for early 2017, returning series including Poldark and the debuts of Victoria and The Durrells in Corfu as cause for anticipation.
“We’re very excited about Victoria, which stars Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes,” said Eaton. “It comes from Mammoth [Screen], which did Poldark, and we premiere that in January of 2017. That’s a very good time for us to launch a series. It’s the time when Downton Abbey went out, because the people watching television are very high in the winter months.” An edited version of Eaton’s conversation with B&C contributing editor Luke McCord follows.
What’s the biggest difference between running Masterpiece now and when you started?
We were the only game in town. Certainly in 1985 no one else in this country was interested in British drama. Networks thought British accents would be incomprehensible to their audiences. HBO wasn’t really doing this kind of material, Harvey Weinstein was still in the movie business and streaming hadn’t been invented. We were in an extremely comfortable position. We could watch finished shows and decide if we wanted to pick them up. We could read scripts and wait to the last minute to see who was cast to see if we wanted to come in. Now, sometimes you have to commit to the project before the first sentence of the first pitch has been completed.
Are there any series you regret passing on?
PBS would have made a tremendous amount of money if I had not passed on the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice. I loved Happy Valley and Sarah Lancashire’s performance, and the way Sally Wainwright wrote it. My concern for the PBS audience was actually the accents, because I watch British drama practically 24 hours a day and spend a lot of time in England. I struggled with the accents, and I thought it might be a bridge too far for our audience.
What makes a show a perfect fit for Masterpiece?
You almost never know ahead of time. I don’t think any of us knew Downton Abbey was going to be a perfect fit, or Sherlock. You can never go wrong with a Romeo and Juliet love story, a will they/won’t they. In many ways that was at the heart of Downton Abbey at the beginning with Matthew and Mary. In Poldark, we have a love triangle. In Victoria, we have the legendary love affair between Victoria and Albert, which resulted in nine children. Lately, I’ve thought our audience is also hungry for something else, which is some sense of community.
What do you find so appealing about British dramas?
I must have been British in a previous life because I’ve always been an Anglophile. I dreamed of living in [England]. I grew up in California, where it never rained…and dreamed about being in a British novel, wandering around a rainy moor. I have a tremendous affection for British culture.
What did a ratings behemoth like Downton mean for Masterpiece?
It actually made PBS, the network, part of the national entertainment conversation again.…There were many weeks when an episode of Downton Abbey would be the most-watched television series in the country, and that just does not happen that often for PBS. It made a lot of money for local stations, which is desperately important because local public television stations exist on donations. I think it made a lot of people within public television feel re-invigorated about the mission of public television.