When It Comes to Drama, PBS Is Royalty

Last Updated by Michael Getler on

Here’s a clue for contestants on the popular ABC-TV quiz show “Jeopardy”:

The following television dramatic series have two things in common: Downton Abbey, Indian Summers, Arthur & George, Wolf Hall, Poldark, Mr. Selfridge, Sherlock, The Paradise, Inspector Lewis, Miss Marple, Grantchester, Foyle’s War, The Crimson Field, Last Tango in Halifax, Call the Midwife.

Answer: What is British and PBS?

What follows is not a critique of these programs—all of which are of high quality—but rather an attempt to explain why there are so many British-produced dramas on PBS and none that are American-produced. It is a question, sometimes in the form of a complaint, I’m asked a half-dozen or so times a year in emails or phone calls.

It has been this way for a decade or more. And there are still more British imports just getting started: the six-part World War II period drama “Home Fires,” part of the long-running “Masterpiece” series, and a three-part crime thriller, “The Widower.” Both began airing on PBS Sunday night, Oct. 4.

The last made-in-America dramatic series that officials here recall off-hand was the Tony Hillerman “Mystery” programs of the early 2000s, and before that the “American Playhouse” series that ran from the early 1980s until the mid-1990s.

The Yanks Are Coming

But at least a mini made-in-the-USA revival is on the way. In January 2016, the first new American-produced dramatic series for PBS—a six-part Civil War-based series titled “Mercy Street” and set in Virginia—will debut. I’ll get back to that.

I asked PBS programming officials, on behalf of those who wrote or called, what explains this dramatic British dominance of dramatic offerings, especially since there has also been an explosion of original American narratives, beyond the commercial television networks, on premium subscription channels such as HBO or Showtime. The answers fell into what sounded to me as a trio of broad categories which might be labeled tradition, differentiation and money. That last category, you will not be surprised, is a biggie.

Mike Kelley is PBS’s Senior Vice President for Programming, Business Affairs and Content Services. In an interview, he made these explanatory points:

“PBS has a long history of British drama on television. ‘Masterpiece,’” PBS’s flagship dramatic series, he said, “is going into its 44th season and that has always been made up of British drama. As you [meaning me] say, there is a lot of really strong American drama on television here in the States but we believe it is important for us to differentiate ourselves in some way from all of the other commercial media. So to the extent that we do American drama, it has to be something different.

“But probably the most important reason is an economic one,” Kelley continued. “These British dramas are being made primarily for British broadcasters like the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and are often connected with big international distribution companies. So those two elements—the UK broadcaster and international distributor—are paying the preponderance of the production costs. And so PBS is able to acquire those dramas at a fraction of the overall cost of making them ourselves.”

‘Mercy Street’

MercyStreetPosterwSawbone.jpg"Mercy Street" will be the first American-originated drama on PBS in more than a decade.Mercy Street poster

So what explains “Mercy Street,” I asked? Kelley says it’s because PBS has had so much success with the British dramas that they’ve been able to expand the Masterpiece and related Sunday night time slots to include additional programs and that they “thought it was important to establish some differentiating drama within the PBS portfolio.”

This project, he said, “came to us as a documentary with some dramatic recreation.” But since the “Civil War,” he said, referring to the earlier and widely acclaimed Ken Burns’ series, is so identified with PBS, and because of what Kelley described as the richness of the writing, “We felt we could really make a differentiated American drama in the sense that it is rooted in deep research and around medical history. We felt there wasn’t anything quite like it on television. The economic model [for Mercy Street] is something unique as well. We got significant foundation funding...and put together some partnerships that you can’t do a lot of but want to do a little of on a consistent basis…We are not in the poor house at PBS but we have to be careful how we spend our resources and make sure they are spread across all the program genres we have.”

There are also a couple of other American-originated dramas that Kelley says are now in the very early, less expensive, phases of development.

Good Luck with That

I asked if these factors are explained to American writers and producers trying to crack the PBS drama schedule. Kelley said: “We are pretty open” about the facts. “We tell people we are certainly interested in doing American-originated drama but it’s got to be the right story, differentiated in some way from the commercial marketplace, and it’s got to come with an economic model that makes some sense. And there is no prescription for that.”

A UK producer or distributor will come to Masterpiece, for example, with a product in its early stage and decide “if it’s a fit,” Kelley said. If it is, “they generally ask us for a minority share of the budget, and those economics allow us to do 40-plus hours of Masterpiece every year and another 25 or so hours, some within and some outside of Masterpiece.”

Speaking of these imports, he says, “For us, it’s important that a program has a British home” on one of the big UK channels because it means the funding is locked in, “and you know the sensibility of those networks, and that they generally perform well on PBS, which has a similar audience make-up.”

He says, “There have been some inquiries about whether we are putting relatively more money into foreign producers than we have in the past and I’ve looked at that data and it doesn’t seem to be true. It’s about the same balance as we’ve always invested. So it’s not a new phenomenon…but possibly more attention is being paid now due to some of the success we’ve had with British dramas.”

The Impact of ‘Downton’

Kelley says PBS has, indeed, “invested more in Masterpiece in the last two years.” The Downton Abbey series—which is the highest-rated drama in PBS history and one of the most-watched on U.S. television—has had a spectacular run, will enter its sixth and final season in January, and has generated many millions in revenue for PBS and its stations.

The public broadcasting trade news organization Current reported in May a PBS “income surplus of $55.6 million from FY13 and FY14, thanks in part to the success of Downton Abbey. Of that, $27 million was invested in the following year’s budget and $26.7 million set aside for future use.”

 Kelley puts this modestly: “Masterpiece has had a resurgence in its performance and in audience response to it. And the economic model is such that these British dramas often drive audiences but they also drive revenue for us which we can then invest in more content in other genres as well.”

Would ‘Homeland’ Have a Home on PBS?

Why wouldn’t a U.S. series such as Showtime’s “Homeland,” for example, work for PBS, I asked?

“We can do it on a very limited basis," Kelley said. "That’s the Mercy Street example. But we can’t do it as frequently as another commercial network. We also feel like it’s important to offer something that is differentiated in the United States. We don’t think it’s right to have second-run rights to something that’s already run on another channel.”

But, I pointed out, that’s what PBS just did in making a deal with HBO to allow second-run rights to the fabled Sesame Street children’s program. Kelley says that’s true but “the difference there is that PBS has a 40-plus year history with Sesame and so we were willing, on a very non-precedential basis, to consider a different type of economic model for Sesame, but that’s not a fundamental part of our strategy.”

The “Homeland” example I mentioned was probably not a good one. My guess is that there would also be mega-problems for public broadcasting with the kind of explicit language, violence and sex portrayed in many U.S.-produced television dramas these days.

Posted on Oct. 6, 2015 at 3:09 p.m.

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