‘Masterpiece’ marks 50th year on PBS, with challenges ahead
LOS ANGELES — As PBS’ “Masterpiece” marks its 50th anniversary today, the drama and mystery showcase could rest on its reputation built with acclaimed programs including “I, Claudius” and “Elizabeth R” and polished anew by surprising pop-culture hits “Sherlock” and “Downton Abbey.”
But “Masterpiece” executive producer Susanne Simpson says it’s positioned to thrive as it addresses the challenges posed by a changing media industry and increased calls for diversity.
“‘Masterpiece’ is important to the PBS system. Our viewers expect us to keep finding the best” in TV, Simpson said, even as competition from commercial platforms increases.
With more streaming services and other outlets gobbling up programs, including the British-made dramas that are a “Masterpiece” staple, the public TV program is becoming more aggressive in the marketplace, Simpson said.
She joined the series nearly 14 years ago and became its executive producer in 2019, only the fourth since “Masterpiece” debuted Jan. 10, 1971, with the miniseries “The First Churchills.”
“We are investing earlier and we’re co-producing earlier on projects, so we’re in a position to be able to put development money into scripts,” Simpson said. “I have probably 15 projects sitting in my inbox, and I’m going to have to make a decision quickly on one of those because there is so much competition for those projects.”
When “Masterpiece” was under executive producer Rebecca Eaton in the mid-1980s, she “used to be able to sit back” and mull her choice of U.K.-produced shows, Simpson said.
As unlikely as it seems in the age of Netflix’s celebrated “The Crown” and its new multiethnic sensation “Bridgerton,” U.S. networks used to avoid British drama “because the general feeling was nobody could understand the accent,” Eaton recalled. Worse yet, they thought it sounded too high-brow for Americans.
But in 1985, there was suddenly “somebody else in the game” besides PBS and the A&E channel, said Eaton, now executive producer at large for “Masterpiece.”
“HBO pounced on doing ‘Elizabeth I’ with Helen Mirren, which was a very rude shock because we considered rather comfortably that we owned Elizabeth I,” she said. “Masterpiece” had aired “Elizabeth R,” the 1972 miniseries with Glenda Jackson as the monarch, a perceived stake that HBO blithely ignored.
“Masterpiece” can’t compete with Netflix- or HBO-sized budgets, Simpson said, relying on corporate sponsors Viking and Raymond James and big and small viewer donations (specific figures were not provided). But she said it makes the most of its relationships with producers such as Colin Callender, whose “All Creatures Great and Small” reboot kicks off the new “Masterpiece” season today.
The Public Broadcasting Service also ensures that its programming is reaching viewers, especially younger ones, where and how they watch TV, which increasingly is anywhere but on a stuck-to-the-wall screen. While PBS may be viewed primarily as a traditional broadcaster, its programs (and educational initiatives) are available online.
“Masterpiece” streams on PBS.org and the PBS Video app to an audience that skews younger than its broadcast viewership, with nearly 40 percent under the age of 55, according to PBS.