‘Downton Abbey’ and How PBS Got Cool

Jace Lacob and Maria Elena Fernandez on how the success of "Downton Abbey" has translated to success for PBS.

Patton Oswalt obsessively live tweets it from his weekly viewing parties. Katy Perry is using it to distract herself from her marital woes. Roger Ebert has stepped outside the movie realm to praise it in his blog. Saturday Night Live spoofed it. Mob Wives star Big Ang Raiola recited favorite quips for Us Weekly. The Onion equated watching one episode with reading a book. And Wednesday night The Soup will celebrate it with a special parody starring RuPaul and drag queens Raven and Shangela.

Could all of this fuss really be about a PBS show? Quite right. Masterpiece's Emmy- and Golden Globe–winning hit, Downton Abbey, created by Julian Fellowes, a TV ratings success and cultural phenomenon, has catapulted the public-television broadcaster with the stodgy reputation to the cool kids' table.

“We don’t know how to handle that over here,” said Mel Rogers, CEO and president of PBS SoCal, the PBS member station that serves greater Los Angeles. "We got accidentally popular.”

Not since Ken Burns’s The Civil War documentary, which aired in 1990, has PBS been at the center of national cultural conversation as it is now. Masterpiece’s Downton Abbey, which finishes its second season U.S. run on Sunday and will return in January 2013, has generated critical acclaim, audience enthusiasm, and impressive ratings, and garnered six Emmys and one Golden Globe, ending HBO’s dominance over the movies and miniseries category. Downton is ranked No. 3 in terms of overall audiences in all Masterpiece presentations since 1990, second only to The Buccaneers and Prime Suspect 2. It brought in a staggering average audience of 6.3 million viewers for its second season premiere on Jan. 8 and was the second-watched program at 9 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday—a primetime coup for a period drama that airs on PBS, of all places.

But Downton Abbey isn’t your ordinary costume affair. The show has attracted the attention of consumers of both low and high culture, and impassioned conversations about the show and its characters are de rigueur in living rooms, coffee shops, and virtual spaces. Downton, it seems, is everywhere—and it has many and varied famous fans.

“What’s interesting about the show is that as our culture’s protocol and etiquette deteriorates, we get to watch this show where it’s in full swing from the turn of the century, where people actually honor their place in society and live there,” said RuPaul, explaining the show’s universal appeal. “That’s why it’s so interesting to watch Downton Abbey because these people know their place and they thrive in their place.”

If it seems odd that America’s top drag queen is waxing poetic about Masterpiece, the 41-year-old production of Boston-based PBS station WGBH, you clearly haven’t gotten the memo that America is in the grips of a full-blown Downton obsession.

“There is a Downton-specific phenomenon going on,” said Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton, who also credited Sherlock with broadening Masterpiece’s audience. “People might have thought maybe Masterpiece was too refined for them, that maybe you had to have a master’s degree to enjoy it. People have come to the understanding that Masterpiece is just very well told stories with high production values and excellent acting, writing, and directing.”

Downton Abbey’s success has brought renewed attention to the public broadcaster, which relies on corporate support and individual donations as well as federal financing, which has fallen significantly. (According to a recent story in The New York Times, PBS revenues for 2010 were $571 million, a steep drop from $624 million in 2007 as compared with subscriber-supported HBO, which had revenues of $4 billion in 2011.)

But just as Downton Abbey’s Lord Grantham looks for the heir to his venerable estate, it’s PBS that is inheriting the spoils from the show’s mainstream success, which is creating a halo effect over the entire PBS schedule. Nova, for example, is up 47 percent in year-to-year ratings, according to PBS spokesperson Jan McNamara, noting that series like Downton bring in new viewers who seem to sample other PBS programming.

“When we have a phenomenon like this, people who are not PBS viewers become aware again of PBS, and once they do that many of them stay,” PBS SoCal’s Rogers said. “As a result of Downton, people are being reminded there is this trusted quality brand and…they ought to check that out more.”

PBS can boast about increased ratings and renewed public interest, but more crucially, Downton’s standing as a critical and audience darling has translated into direct financial support at the local station level. Although PBS cannot track donations as they relate to specific programs, executives say recent donors have expressed their excitement over the show.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

“Both the number of pledges and the average pledges are up compared to last year,” McNamara said. “We are definitely hearing from stations who report that people are increasing their support or becoming new members because of this series.”

At WNET, New York City’s local PBS member station, revenue through January has been “very strong” across the board, said spokesperson Roberta Lee, and Downton Abbey’s Sunday ratings are 216 percent higher than the station’s overall prime average.

“We have seen our online donations and on-air donations surge in the last few months,” said Lee. “In fact, our online donations are up 26 percent from last year at the same time. So we have every reason to believe that Downton Abbey has brought new viewers and new donors to [WNET].”

It also brought a new corporate sponsor in luxury river cruise company Viking River Cruises, which approached WGBH Boston last year about underwriting Masterpiece after it polled its clients about their TV-viewing habits. Viking caters to affluent baby boomers over the age of 55, who responded that several of Masterpiece’s programs, including Downton Abbey, were among their favorites.

Masterpiece programming is smart, it’s insightful, it’s engaging,” said Viking’s senior vice president of marketing Richard Marnell. “It just struck me as the perfect fit because our clientele is culturally interested.”

Likewise, last summer, WGBH established The Masterpiece Trust, a fundraising initiative targeting “high-end donors” where half of the proceeds benefit Masterpiece’s programming costs and the other half goes to the donor’s local PBS station. Donations start at the $25,000 mark, and this has proven to be beneficial to both Masterpiece and the local PBS stations, which rely on individual contributions to stay afloat.

“It has been very successful,” said Eaton. “The whole concept is that it is a way for people to give money directly to Masterpiece to be used to buy programs for this year, for next year, and money that we very much need because the funding we get from Viking River Cruises and PBS is not enough to keep Masterpiece going.”

The median age of primetime PBS viewers is approximately 62, but both Masterpiece and PBS are attempting to reach a younger audience through social media. Masterpiece has quickly become adept, with a Twitter feed that is plugged into what viewers are saying. Downton actors regular join in for live-chat sessions, and the second-season premiere was streamed online no less than 743,000 times in three weeks. During the Golden Globe Awards telecast, for example, following the announcement that the series had taken home the prize for Best Mini-Series, there were 6,000 tweets per second on Twitter, higher than the 2011 Super Bowl and the royal wedding.

If it’s done anything, Downton has given PBS a patina of cool in a post-water-cooler age. Besides the SNL takeoff, David Letterman invited Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary, to sit on his couch on Thursday night. The actress also appeared on The View the following day. Dockery’s character will be played by drag queen Shangela in The Soup’s sendup, Dragton Abbey. “Downton is just really hot right now, and it’s a hot show we haven’t been able to hit yet,” said The Soup producer Matthew Carney, who wrote the sketch. “Whenever a show is really popular and it’s really good and we can’t really make fun of it, we just put drag queens in it.”

In a way, RuPaul said, drag queens are the perfect vehicle for parodying class structure because “drag makes fun of standing on ceremony and protocol and all of that.” RuPaul’s Drag Race runner-up Raven plays Cora, the countess, and RuPaul, plays Carson the butler.

“Everybody can’t live upstairs, I’m sorry,” RuPaul said, laughing about his role. “We’re not created equal. We’re sold the idea that we’re all created equal, but actually we’re not.”

Upstairs. Downstairs. To some viewers, it doesn’t matter.

In the words of Downton devotee Patton Oswalt: “Downton Abbey—it’s Star Trek for tea drinkers!”