'Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind the Scenes at Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! on PBS' by Rebecca Eaton (Book Review)

The Emmy-winning EP who brought "Downton Abbey" and "Sherlock" to the U.S. recounts the professional and personal struggles behind public TV's biggest hit.

In her new memoir, Rebecca Eaton chronicles her long and arduous 28-year journey steering Masterpiece Theatre from obscurity to international fame, largely due to the unprecedented success of Downton Abbey.

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Through funding lost and regained, careers made, opportunities missed and personal tragedies that would have stopped many careers in their tracks, Eaton weaves an absorbing tale of what began as just a young girl’s Anglophilia but would eventually change the viewing habits of Americans.

Born in 1947 to an accomplished stage actress and a Shakespeare professor, one could argue that Eaton was destined for Masterpiece Theatre from the start.  After graduating from Vassar in 1969 she moved to London for an apprenticeship with BBC radio and fell in love with producing.

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She returned to Boston a year later and took a job at WGBH, the Boston affiliate of what now is known as PBS, and soon was producing public access programs and documentaries for the station. 

Meanwhile, execs at WGBH were scheming a way to bring original BBC miniseries to American television, the kind of long-form drama that was completely absent from the networks at that time, but they needed the money to do so. 

The book is filled with accounts of those early days that will fascinate anyone who wonders how a public broadcaster got such a prolific series off the ground with very little government funding, especially compared to its counterpart the BBC, which is entirely funded by household taxes. In a brilliant stroke of forethought and timing, WGBH execs approached Mobil Oil, whose head of PR convinced its CEO that they would be underwriting “the kind of show that people are going to be talking about the next day at the country club.” That was enough to seal the deal on Mobil buying 39 hours of already-made BBC drama to be run nationally, and a decades-long relationship was born. Mobil would go on to spend nearly $250 million on Masterpiece over the years.

On January 10, 1971, Masterpiece Theatre premiered its first series, The First Churchills, to strong enough reviews and ratings that the producers felt confident they were on the right path. Anchored by the indelible hosting of Alistair Cooke, the program's popularity grew over the next few years with well-done adaptations of classic literature, but didn’t see its first big hit until 1974 with Upstairs, Downstairs

Not only was Up/Down, as it is called by its creators, a huge success in its own right, but it influenced the creation of Downton Abbey years later.  Says the show's creator, Julian Fellowes: “I loved Upstairs, Downstairs. One of the most attractive elements of it was that it didn’t take the modern position of deciding that all the upstairs people are horrible and all the downstairs people are lovely. They were all just people, and some of them are nicer than others. I would say that that certainly was an influence on me.”

Eaton was named executive producer of Masterpiece Theatre in 1985 upon the death of her predecessor, Joan Wilson. Her mantra going in was simply “not to fix what wasn’t broken.” Eaton’s first task was to choose a new show for the program’s subseries Mystery! and Eaton chose wisely, going with Inspector Morse, which would run for 13 seasons and inspire future hits such as Inspector Lewis and Endeavor, and was reportedly the favorite program of both Princess Margaret and John Updike

In 1986 a new player entered the scene and threatened to upstage Masterpiece entirely: cable television, and in particular A&E, which was aiming for the same demographic. Eaton stuck to her guns and produced more costume dramas that she thought would capture viewers while reinforcing the brand: Middlemarch in 1994, a huge hit that launched the career of Rufus Sewell, and The Buccaneers the following year, starring then-unknowns Mira Sorvino and Carla Gugino. She also convinced Mobil to let her add more contemporary programming such as Traffik, which won an Emmy in 1990 and led to the Oscar-winning film Traffic

But the missed opportunities weighed on her as well: passing on a movie called My Left Foot, which Miramax then picked up and which won Daniel Day-Lewis his first Oscar, and a new miniseries adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which ended up at rival A&E. Starring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, Pride went on to become the defining adaptation of Jane Austen’s book and a huge misjudgment by Eaton and Masterpiece. (Eaton cleverly adds, however, that the general public came to assume Pride and Prejudice was a Masterpiece production anyway, and in fact 13 years later they secured the rights and aired it themselves.)

Though the book’s most compelling moments are culled from the battles Eaton waged as producer, she manages to put everything in perspective as a highly successful working mother who had plenty to fight for at home as well. She writes touchingly of the five babies she lost as the result of four miscarriages in the ‘90s, while at the same time fallout from creative disagreements with Mobil executives landed her on a brief probation with WGBH.

The program was going through its own kind of probation as well. In 1994 Mobil decided to defund Mystery! and PBS stepped up in its place. “The idea that funding public broadcasting should be part of a corporation’s civic duty was starting to evaporate, even as corporate profits rose,” writes Eaton.  Eight years later, ExxonMobil announced it would stop funding Masterpiece altogether. PBS again picked up the reins.

In 2010 Sherlock joined the Mystery! roster, with the exciting new star Benedict Cumberbatch bringing in a younger audience. As Eaton sees it, this audience was unknowingly being warmed up for Downton Abbey – unknown even to herself at the time, as WGBH was prepping a new Upstairs, Downstairs and was only vaguely aware that Downton was seeking an American broadcaster. But once Eaton heard that Maggie Smith and Elizabeth McGovern were cast in the new drama, she dropped all hesitation about airing two up/down-style programs and called Downton EP Gareth Neame. Luckily for her, Neame had already heard “no” from HBO and all the commercial networks, even NBCUniversal, which owned Neame’s production company, and they struck a deal.

Downton Abbey premiered in the U.S. on January 9, 2011, and was an instant sensation. It had the highest ratings for a Masterpiece episode in 14 years; the season finale drew an even bigger audience. 

Season two went into production back in England, even though it was originally conceived as a one-season miniseries. But Fellowes had more stories to tell, and his audience was clearly eager to hear them.

As the American producer of a very British show, Eaton points out the odd fact that Downtown has enjoyed a kind of fame and recognition in the U.S. not matched back home in the U.K.

Downton Abbey has cleaned up in America, thus far winning nine primetime Emmys, two Golden Globes, and a SAG Award,” she writes.  “But in the U.K., the series has had a very peculiar relationship with awards – it has been noticeably overlooked.”

The success of Downton has also presented Masterpiece with challenges that Eaton admits are “a good problem to have,” but have proved something of a learning curve for its PR team. The necessity of having a social media presence to promote the show and connect its international fan base has forced Masterpiece onto the virtual scene, and on the night of the season-three premiere, Downton clocked in nearly 100,000 tweets, “ten times as much conversation as around the only two higher-rated shows, The Good Wife and The Mentalist,” reported The New York Times

But digital convenience is a double-edged sword, and Eaton worries over the fact that Downton is now a widely pirated show. While she acknowledges that this means more young, tech-savvy viewers are watching, she worries that they do so without forming any attachment to PBS or Masterpiece, so it will prove more difficult to turn these viewers into donors down the road.

Throughout the book Eaton comes off as a woman who is remarkably unskeptical for a veteran TV executive, perhaps due to her genuine love of the programming she produces. Through it all, she has stuck to her guns that quality will win out over anything else, and she has been proven right time and time again. 

When speculating as to what audiences find so compelling in Downtown, she wonders if it isn’t that, in this era of dark, conflicted protagonists a la Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, Downton “is a show about a community of people who are all, in straightforward and old-fashioned ways, trying to do the right thing. It has morality at its core.”

In the end, Eaton looks back with unflagging fondness at her life’s work and the spectrum of experiences it has brought her. For every personal setback – missing her daughter’s first steps and, as she is writing this book, a divorce from her husband of 29 years – she is aware of equal blessings, concluding:

“I’ve had the enormous good fortune to grow up and work as I used to play – there’s nothing better.”

The legions of loyal viewers who flock to Masterpiece every Sunday night, decade after decade, must surely be glad that she did.

Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind the Scenes at Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! on PBS by Rebecca Eaton (Viking, 300 pages, $29.95)