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Published: Friday, 5/16/2014 - Updated: 2 years ago


Rebecca Eaton: ‘Masterpiece’ success story


Rebecca Eaton has millions of fans. And most of them don’t even know it.

Eaton is the longtime executive producer of Masterpiece, PBS’s Sunday prime-time staple of culture, period costumes, British accents, and drama.

“My job is as the curator of the series, which means I’m the decider. I choose what programs we should co-produce … then I do the deals to acquire the rights to be able to show them on public broadcasting,” Eaton said in a recent phone interview. “And then as executive producer of the series, I’m responsible for raising the money to buy the programs and overseeing the publicity and the broadcast of them within the PBS schedule.”

In other words, without her approval and support, Downton Abbey — Public Television’s biggest hit since Ken Burns’ acclaimed Civil War documentary in 1990 — might have never made it to U.S. living rooms. The same for Masterpiece’s other hugely popular program, Sherlock.

A winner of 42 Primetime Emmy Awards, 17 Peabody Awards, two Golden Globes, and two Academy Award nominations, Eaton recently published a memoir about her experiences shaping PBS programming, Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind the Scenes at Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! on PBS. She’ll be in town to discuss her hit shows and her new book at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Hilton Garden Inn at Levis Commons, Perrysburg. Eaton will also sign copies of Making Masterpiece after her talk. The event is open to the public, and is free for WGTE members and $15 for non-members. Advance reservations are required and can be made by calling 419-380-4625 or visiting wgte.org.

Eaton Eaton

As the graveyard of failed network series indicates, there’s no formula for picking hits. But Eaton at least as the advantage of longevity, having executive produced Masterpiece for nearly 30 years. At this point, Eaton said she has a “pretty good sense” of what the Masterpiece audience likes and responds to.

“It’s not all that hard to know. They like very hard quality, intelligent drama, well written, well acted, and beautifully produced,” she said. “We have done largely period drama over the years, costume drama, adaptations of books and period stories, like Downton Abbey, but we of course do more contemporary things and even periods things made contemporary, like Sherlock.

“I can tell at this point reading a script pretty much if something has a pretty good chance of working, You never know for sure, because there’s many a slip betwixt the page and the stage. It can look and read well, but it has to be produced, directed, and acted, so that’s what I do.”

Eaton’s recent success certainly showcases her knowledge and familiarity with her audience.

The British imports Downton Abbey and Sherlock have boosted the brand name and cultural awareness of the U.S. network, with a trickle-down effect of increased overall viewership for PBS affiliates, more donations during pledge drives, and more funds for the network’s general coffers to support lesser-known or start-up programs.

“PBS is much more visible because we have a couple hit shows,” Eaton said. “It makes people who have known about PBS forever think, ‘Oh, wow, they’re still in the game.’ And it calls attention to us to younger people who might really not have been paying attention, and might not have been watching and say, ‘Oh, maybe I should see what else they’re doing.’

Masterpiece’s success with Downton Abbey and Sherlock “is the rising tide that’s raising all boats. We’re really, really proud of that.”

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.

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