Downton Abbey and PBS’ Not-So-Special Relationship

PBS has long compensated for its meager programming slate by importing dusty old bargain basement series from British public broadcasters, and to no avail.  Now, Downton Abbey has proven a rare success, but it’s still just British/ITV leftovers, not to mention, a sad reminder that PBS cannot afford the kind of world class original programming that UK pub-casters produce so well, and so prolifically.  In the short run, PBS may bask in the acclaim Downton Abbey generates, but in the end, it’s only another break even bet.

First, the critical “moment” the series is enjoying is unlikely to register an increase in member support.  Second, while DVD sales are bound to be a minor bonanza, PBS doesn’t own the series; it’s only got a licensing stake which primarily serves to benefit WGBH.  And third, when PBS spends its scant resources on shelf product from the competition across the pond, it is missing the chance to invest in itself, and a shot at real relevance.

One upshot is that Downton Abbey has temporarily steered PBS into popular culture.  This could and should represent a golden opportunity for PBS to re-brand itself for a new generation.  Patton Oswalt, a comedian of the hippest order, has been live tweeting Downton Abbey.  If PBS was smart, they would launch a viral digital campaign, featuring Patton and other celebrity fans, that parodied and/or praised the series…just in time to spice up a pledge drive, of course!


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