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.
Its traditional January-March slot will go next year to new British series “Victoria,” which will star former “Doctor Who” actress Jenna Coleman as a young Queen Victoria. That show is said to have the same mix of top production values and period intrigue that were “Downton” hallmarks.
Until then, returning British period dramas, including “Mr. Selfridge,” “Call the Midwife” and “Grantchester,” will keep PBS SoCal as “the destination for drama,” according to station spokeswoman Jennifer Vides.
But while it looks to the future, the station certainly recognizes what it is losing.
“‘Downton’ started well; season two did better – audiences grew and a fan base developed. The next year, ‘Downton Abbey’ became one of the most popular series on television, as word spread and new fans found it on Netflix and Amazon. And by season four, the show became a genuine phenomenon – the highest-rated drama series ever on PBS,” said PBS SoCal CEO Russell.
Indeed, the PBS SoCal ratings for “Downton” have been at or above the national average, and as viewership grew over the years, so did the station’s subscriber numbers.
Also impressive has been local community support of the show. Hundreds of dedicated fans of the series showed up in full costume at local screenings around Los Angeles County and more than 100,000 people came to see the “Downton Abbey” float at January’s Rose Parade in Pasadena.
Finances prompted the departure of another longtime PBS favorite, “Sesame Street.” The educational show, featuring beloved characters such as Big Bird, lost a reported $11 million in 2014 due in large part to a decline in DVD sales brought about by an increase in streaming, prompting New York production company Sesame Workshop to give up its longstanding exclusive deal with PBS for a new deal with HBO.
PBS will still broadcast the show’s episodes for free – just nine months after they’ve aired on HBO and the station will feature reruns until then. What does that mean for PBS SoCal’s tiniest viewers?
“‘Sesame Street’ is still a part of the PBS family,” said Russell. “Kids can still tune in to see their friends Big Bird and Elmo for free every day on PBS SoCal.”
And they’re likely the ones who will be tuning in most, whether its online or in front of the TV. According to the station’s annual report, 25 million PBS Kids videos are streamed monthly in Southern California, and 12 hours of children’s programming are aired daily on traditional TV, reaching 18 million viewers across six counties.
“We continue to be the destination for educational kids’ programming and have a very healthy pipeline,” said Russell.
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