TV

PBS’ Masterpiece Pivots To Find The Next ‘Downton Abbey’ Amid Streaming Competition As Venerable Drama Strand Celebrates 50th Anniversary

PBS’ Masterpiece, which has been home to classic British dramas including Downton Abbey, Upstairs, Downstairs, Prime Suspect and the original House of Cards, turns 50 on January 10.

The venerable drama strand is celebrating with a slew of period dramas and mystery thrillers. But it is also using the anniversary as an opportunity to shift its programming strategy to allow it to hunt down the next breakout hit from the other side of the pond, amid aggressive competition from streamers such as Amazon, AppleTV+, HBO Max and Netflix.

Susanne Simpson, an exec producer on series including Downton Abbey, took over running Masterpiece in November 2019, replacing Rebecca Eaton.

She told Deadline that the success of the regal ITV drama, which ran for six seasons and ending in 2015, was a turning point for British dramas in the U.S. and it has now pivoted to ensure that it still has a pipeline of shows.

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Simpson (left) admits that it’s tricky to compete against companies that “spend billions of dollars” and launch series such as Shonda Rhimes’ Bridgerton.

“The competition with the streamers has become quite fierce, and so we’re now doing things a little bit differently. We used to be the first and only place for British drama, and now with all the competition, we’re actually putting money into developing scripts and working with UK producers from the ground up,” she said.

“I think of it as we’re investing in our future now because we’re actually going to be initiating some of those projects, and we’re also paying more for them, especially for the costume dramas, which are [rising] in price.”

Simpson said for the first time she’s working on a few shows initiated by PBS Masterpiece, a departure from a strategy that used to see it come on board projects as or after they were commissioned by British broadcasters or acquiring the rights to finished shows.

She admits that Masterpiece has been “priced out” of some of the costume dramas coming out of the UK, including a new adaptation of Brideshead Revisited by Luca Guadagnino and A Pursuit of Love with Emily Mortimer. Those are both BBC series but with involvement from Amazon and potentially HBO.

“Some of their drama right now is at the very high end and there’s some titles that we will get priced out of, like those two, just because they’re going to be at the level of The Crown,” she added.

However, she is hopeful that PBS would be involved in the sequel to BBC’s Wolf Hall. Peter Kosminsky is working on the follow-up to Hilary Mantel’s book series, which published The Mirror and the Light last year, and hopeful of getting the original cast such as Damian Lewis back on board.

While other networks and streamers may be able to spend more money, Simpson says that Masterpiece’s relationship are deep rooted, having originally launched in 1971 with the BBC’s The First Churchills.

“Where we’re most fortunate is that we’ve had these long relationships with UK producers, distributors, and with the commissioners, and that people have really entrusted us with their shows over these many years, and we have done our absolute best to make sure that the American audience not only knew about them, but appreciated them for what they had to offer,” she said. “Even before the success of Downton Abbey, people knew that our audience would appreciate the kinds of shows that were being made in the UK, and still now appreciate the level of talent and the writing and the acting and the production.”

Masterpiece kicked off the year with the premiere of Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth Is Missing on January 3. The STV-produced drama stars two-time Academy Award–winner Jackson as a woman desperately trying to solve two mysteries as she declines ever deeper into dementia. She won a BAFTA and International Emmy for her performance.

On its anniversary, January 10, it is also launching a new adaptation of All Creatures Great and Small (left). The Playground Entertainment-produced series, which is a co-production with ViacomCBS’ Channel 5, stars Nicholas Ralph as veterinarian James Herriot in rural Yorkshire in the 1930s. It has already been picked up for a second season.

This will be followed by Miss Scarlet & The Duke on January 17. The show, which stars The Crown’s Kate Phillips as Victorian sleuth Eliza Scarlet, is a co-production with A+E Networks International.

Finally in January, it will premiere The Long Song (right) on January 31. It stars Tamara Lawrance as a house slave in Jamaica during the era of emancipation in the early 1800s, with Hayley Atwell as her fickle mistress and Jack Lowden as a handsome overseer and romantic foil. Andrea Levy’s book was adapted by David Heyman’s Heyday Television.

“What we wanted to do in January was to showcase all the kinds of shows that we do. We purposely wanted to have a very full January as a gift to our loyal audience with shows like a wonderful contemporary piece and a heartwarming period drama,” Simpson said.

Once the pandemic broke last year, Simpson also looked for alternative shows in case the pipeline dried up. This was how it came to Atlantic Crossing, a Norwegian drama that tells the story of the WWII relationship between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Norwegian Crown Princess Märtha. It stars Kyle MacLachlan as FDR. “Atlantic Crossing was a show that we had known about, but we tend to look first at British made productions because that’s what our audience is looking for, but when COVID happened we had to look to see if there was something else available, and Atlantic Crossing was coming. They were almost done filming and therefore were just going into editing,” she added. It will launch later this spring.

Elsewhere, building on thrillers such as Prime Suspect, Grantchester and Sherlock, it also has mystery dramas such as ITV’s Van Der Valk, and will launch Magpie Murders, from Anthony Horowitz in 2022. “We’re about to begin production on it in March, so that’s very exciting to see that one. It’s two mysteries in one book. It’s very clever. It’s a present-day mystery but also an Agatha Christie like mystery that happens in the 1950s,” she said.

There will be plenty more where these came from. “I practically have 2023 locked, and I’m looking for shows for 2024,” Simpson added.

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