DAVID BIANCULLI

Founder / Editor

ERIC GOULD

Associate Editor

LINDA DONOVAN

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MIKE HUGHES

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MONIQUE NAZARETH

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After 35 Years, a New E.P. Takes Over at 'Masterpiece'
November 26, 2019  | By Mike Hughes  | 2 comments
 


The Rebecca Eaton era is ending at Masterpiece. It has been, well, mostly masterful.

At its peak, it has provided some of the finest moments on television – Downton Abbey, Prime Suspect, Wallander, Sherlock, and more, including Little Women and Bleak House reboots.

At its low point, it's merely been bland, such as the recent The Chaperone. Then it has bounced back.

PBS announced recently that Eaton, 72, is stepping down as Executive Producer and staying on as Executive-Producer-at-Large. She'll work at developing new drama projects, while also fundraising for The Masterpiece Trust, which has raised $20 million since she launched it eight years ago.

Viewers shouldn't expect significant changes: Susanne Simpson, her assistant for 12 years, is taking over.

Still, it's been an impressive run – 34 years of Masterpiece and Mystery. Along the way, Eaton has shown a skill that many people might lack – listening to others and realizing when to change direction. Good TV chiefs do that.

For instance:

NBC. Brandon Tartikoff was opposed to casting Michael J. Fox in Family Ties and Don Johnson in Miami Vice. He was even ready to cancel Cheers in its first season. He relented, and the network soared from last to first, primarily with quality TV.

Or CBS. Les Moonves opposed Survivor, but his staff talked him into it. He didn't have CSI on his schedule then changed his mind when a comedy producer praised the show on the eve of the new season presentation. CSI and Survivor nudged CBS out of merely being an old-folks network.

And Eaton. Her memoir – Making Masterpiece (Viking, 2013) – mentions some fortunate U-turns.

She had assumed Traffik would be too stark for PBS, she wrote. "My husband, Paul (Cooper, a sculptor), famous for falling asleep during the opening credits of most of the British dramas I brought home, sat bolt upright on the couch for this one – all six hours of it: 'You have to take it, Beck.'"

It won an International Emmy and was adapted into the Oscar-winning Traffic.

A Helen Mirren police mini-series seemed too gritty for PBS; others disagreed. "Even Mobil (the corporate sponsor) liked Prime Suspect," Eaton wrote. "What could I have been thinking?"

She rejected Downton for a basic reason: It was too similar to the Upstairs, Downstairs sequel. Then came word from Simon Curtis, a respected director: His wife, Elizabeth McGovern, was working on Downton and felt it was exceptional. Eaton wrote that she changed her mind "after I learned the news of Maggie (Smith) being cast and heard of Elizabeth's enthusiasm."

And a few got away. Eaton rejected My Left Foot; instead, it went to movie theaters, drew an Oscar nomination for best picture and Oscars for Daniel Day-Lewis and Brenda Fricker. She thought the 1995 Pride and Prejudice was coming too soon after the 1980 Masterpiece version; she changed her mind, but by then, it was heading to A&E – and great acclaim.

For a time, A&E and other cable networks were a problem as they were competing for British shows. But they lost interest and changed focus, but Masterpiece persisted. Eaton even grabbed that 1995 version, in one of her masterstrokes: Following a staffer's suggestion, she packaged it in 2008 with several remakes to create The Complete Jane Austin – all six novels in one burst of movies and mini-series.

By then, there were other problems. Mobil quit sponsoring Mystery in 1994 and Masterpiece a decade later. A new PBS president canceled Mystery in 2001, then hesitantly agreed to let it be part of the Masterpiece umbrella on Sundays. The British were leaning away from big costume dramas anyway; some fairly bland mysteries – Inspector Lewis, for instance – took a big chunk of Sundays.

Then Downton happened. "In both Britain and the United States, it has rejuvenated the genre," Eaton wrote. Funding – corporate and donors – has been strong. There has been quantity – at times, PBS has three separate dramas on Sundays – and quality.

Masterpiece has just finished a lush Poldark reboot. After the annual December break, it will stack three mini-series – Sanditon (based on Austen's unfinished novel), Howards End (which previously ran on Starz), and Vienna Blood. With luck, the Eaton era will end masterfully.

 
 
 
 
 
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2 Comments
 
 
J Hanna
When will we see PBS on a streaming service ?
Nov 29, 2019   |  Reply
 
Jim
Thank you David. I am using Roku with the Passport membership. It's nice to have the archived shows but there is nothing better than the real PBS channel. I have YouTube TV also Michele and have seen rumors PBS might be added. I am also eagerly anticipating having PBS back. Nothing better.
Dec 1, 2019
 
 
David
PBS streaming is on Roku devices and if you’re a PBS Passport member ($60 donation to your local station, I think) there’s a huge archive of shows available.
Nov 30, 2019
 
 
Michele B
It will shortly be included in YouTube TV according to info I have received. I am eagerly anticipating having my PBS back.
Nov 29, 2019
 
 
 
mark isenberg
There is not enough we can do for Ms.Eaton for rescuing PBS on Sundays and now with the Downton Abbey film release,she can semi-retire as the Queen of Quality Imports. It does not matter which ones you loved and those you yawned at. If not for Ms.Eaton at WGBH-Boston,we would not get a Poldark remake,Prime Suspect or DA. Write her at WGBH with Holidays Blessings and thanks....
Nov 27, 2019   |  Reply
 
 
 
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