TCA 2012: It's PBS' Time to Shine (Analysis)

The public broadcaster is still basking in the bright lights of "Downton Abbey," which is benefiting its other offerings.

These are good times for PBS. On Saturday night, the public broadcaster had a rousing session at the Television Critics Association summer press tour by letting the Downton Abbey cast -- with new addition Shirley MacLaine -- riff on questions offered up by critics who devoured the responses in what was one of the most entertaining panels so far.

It was a nice sight for poor underdog PBS. Year after year, PBS executives would trudge through press tour answering questions about slashed government funding, annoying pledge drives and whether it was special enough anymore compared to various cable channels. Unless there was a new Ken Burns documentary to tout, it was becoming a depressingly predictable affair, regardless of how much great programming was presented.

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PBS seemed dowdy and unsexy. But that all changed with Downton Abbey, of course, and now with season two garnering a whopping 16 Emmy nominations there seems to be a halo effect for the rest of the programming.

PBS has 58 total nominations -- more than NBC, ABC, Fox, FX, AMC, Showtime, etc. Even channels that could arguably be PBS’ main content competition – Discovery, History and BBC America – could only come up with a combined 31 nominations, and 16 of History’s 17 nominations were for Hatfields & McCoys.

So, yes, times are good.

And they should be. Sherlock is a wonderful series -- recipient of 13 Emmy nominations unto itself. But the combination of Masterpiece Classic and Masterpiece Mystery! -- where PBS is presenting some of its very best work -- give viewers Inspector Lewis, Endeavour (the prequel to the Inspector Morse series which did huge numbers in England and is likely to be renewed) and Wallander with Kenneth Branagh. These are all series of high quality that prove that, creatively, PBS is a major player in the drama arena.

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In the three seasons since Masterpiece Theater was relaunched as simply Masterpiece (with Classic, where Downton Abbey resides, Mystery! and Contemporary), ratings have increased. Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of Masterpiece, said viewership rose 15 percent the first year, 45 percent the second year “and a dazzling 107 percent increase this past year,” Eaton said, as proud as ever. “This is not just the Downton effect. This is the Sherlock effect, the Lewis effect, the Marple effect and the Wallander effect.”

As true as that may be, no doubt the others have benefited from a vast number of new viewers coming to PBS because they can’t go a day without hearing about Downton Abbey. This halo effect hasn’t been seen on PBS in ages, but it’s the kind of thing that niche cable channels like FX, AMC and others have been lucky enough to experience for years. In a super-crowded television landscape, one great show can stand out and introduce millions of people to what else you’ve got. And in the case of PBS, it has a lot to be proud of. As more people realize the public broadcaster is home to some elite dramas, those viewers may stick around a lot longer.

Of course, there’s another season of Downton Abbey coming Jan. 13, so the good times are likely to continue (and Burns has another documentary, The Dust Bowl, coming Nov. 18 and 19 – and Burns always gets ink).

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While all of this is well and good for the dramas, PBS should nevertheless take every available opportunity to get fresh faces looking at what Frontline, Nova, American Masters and American Experience have to offer as well, since those stalwarts have consistently produced some of the best content on television.

In a competitive world of fresh hype, those series aren’t as sexy and the don’t get the attention they deserve. But hey, in the bright new Downton Abbey era of PBS, you never know how far out that halo can illuminate.

It's nice to see the PBS people giddy. They do good, often overlooked work. As Eaton was set to introduce Saturday night's Downton Abbey panel, she was as bubbly as ever. "How much fun is this, huh? I have never in my life felt the need to get out of the way quicker than I do tonight."

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