PBS SoCal has been left with a giant hole in its schedule – and potentially its pocketbook – with the ending of hugely popular show “Downton Abbey.”

Now the flagship station for PBS in Southern California has the challenge of replacing the British period drama, which drew a mighty national audience of nearly 10 million viewers with its March 6 series finale, according to Nielsen ratings.

As a public TV station, which its annual report shows gets more than half its funding from member donations, the end of “Downton” brings financial worries as well.

During the most recent membership campaign at the end of last year, PBS SoCal said that it raised more than $1 million in contributions from 6,530 viewers throughout Southern California.

But “Downton” is not the only high-profile recent departure, as January saw iconic children’s program “Sesame Street” jumping from PBS station to premium cable channel HBO under a new five-year deal.

However, executives at PBS SoCal said they are not pressing the panic button, as they feel a string of shows they have in the pipeline will fill the quality gap.

“While we’ll miss ‘Downton Abbey,’ drama is stronger than ever on PBS,” said Andy Russell, chief executive at PBS SoCal. “We have a strong lineup of dramas with great scripts, costumes and scenery – cast with talented actors. That’s what audiences liked so much about ‘Downton.’”

He added that new children’s shows and previously aired “Sesame Street” episodes will continue to keep the kids happy.

But some TV industry analysts believe PBS should be worried.

‘Once in a lifetime’

“There will never be another ‘Downton Abbey,’” said Mary Murphy, senior lecturer at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism and longtime critic for TV Guide. “That kind of quality, historical perspective, heart and soapy storylines comes around once in a TV lifetime. There is talk of a movie, but that may be a mistake or a fantasy, and it surely won’t be equal to a weekly installment of the Crawley family.”

PBS SoCal is the third-most-watched PBS station in the United States; New York and Chicago are first and second, respectively. For nearly 50 years, PBS has been serving up educational and cultural programming, news and documentaries to its 350 local member stations, without commercial support.

But “Downton” has been its biggest ever hit. For the past six years, the critically acclaimed multiaward-winning drama has captured viewers’ imaginations and in the process boosted PBS ratings, revenues and membership.


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