By FRAZIER MOORE, AP Television Writer
NEW YORK – With a name like “Masterpiece,” it has to be good.
For a quarter-century, Rebecca Eaton has overseen this weekly British drama showcase whose reputation for excellence is undisputed.
But now, with “Masterpiece” marking its 40th year (it first aired in January 1971), the pressures of maintaining that masterpiece tradition might have reasonably begun to wear on the person in charge.
“It’s my life’s work,” declares Eaton, looking anything but pressured, “and I love it.”
The PBS series’ summer phase — “Masterpiece Mystery!” — is now under way. On Sunday (check local listings for time), David Suchet stars as the dapper detective Hercule Poirot in a new adaptation of the novels by Agatha Christie. The week after that: another Poirot mystery. Then a new Miss Marple whodunit, “The Pale Horse,” starring Julia McKenzie. Then three weeks of mysteries set in modern-day Italy with Rufus Sewell as Detective Aurelio Zen, before an August break.
Eaton runs things from the show’s home base in Boston. But lately she has made two trips to Manhattan. She was feted as one of this year’s Time 100 (the magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world, which also included such luminaries as President Barack Obama and Justin Bieber). On a subsequent visit, she collected a Peabody Award for last season’s “Masterpiece” airing of “Sherlock: A Study in Pink.”
A native of Pasadena, Calif., she grew up in a cultured household. Her father taught Shakespeare at the California Institute of Technology. Her mother, Katherine Emery, had been an actress on Broadway and in the movies. An alumna of Vassar College, Eaton became a production assistant for the BBC World Service in London before arriving at WGBH, where she joined what was then known as “Masterpiece Theatre.”
“What else WOULD I do?” she explains with a laugh. “It was perfect.”
Since becoming executive producer in September 1985, she could lay claim to such admired productions as “Prime Suspect,” “House of Cards,” “Traffik,” “The Forsyte Saga,” “Bleak House,” “Inspector Morse,” “The Complete Jane Austen” and “Little Dorrit” as the series won 28 prime-time Emmys and 14 Peabodys.
But receiving accolades hardly sums up her job description.
Over eggs Benedict one recent morning in a restaurant near Central Park, Eaton listed a few of her responsibilities.
“I choose the shows — what we will invest in to co-produce,” she began. (More than half of the projects are co-productions, rather than acquisitions.)
“I give notes on the writing and consult on the casting,” she went on. “I read the scripts with a fairly educated eye. I very rarely go to the set or look at rushes, but I do look at cuts.”
The result is 40 weeks of new “Masterpiece” programming each season.
At the same time, Eaton must keep the money coming in. The series gets funding from PBS and from PBS stations, but has never landed another corporate underwriter since Mobil (which later became ExxonMobil) dropped its sponsorship after 33 years in 2004.
To help meet the budget, Eaton early this year launched The Masterpiece Trust, an opportunity for individual donors and families to make major contributions directly to the series while supporting their local PBS station. Thus far, it has collected $750,000.
Meanwhile, in a world of multiple media platforms, Eaton has extended the reach of “Masterpiece,” making its programming available online. “Downton Abbey,” a major four-part serialization, was seen by 13 million TV viewers last season. A million more saw it online.
But with increasing viewing choices on increasing media outlets, Eaton says bringing attention to the show has become a major part of her job.
“I remember the Age of Aquarius, but this is the age of marketing,” she chuckles. “When I started this job, my association with the word `marketing’ was what my mother did every Wednesday afternoon. Now, we have to really focus on brand-building.
“But I’m lucky, in that `Masterpiece’ is a fantastic brand. I inherited that brand 25 years ago, and I’ve come to understand that my job is to preserve and protect it.”
Her major effort in that cause was a brand makeover three years ago. Her mission: to freshen up the “Masterpiece” image for younger viewers without vexing the “Masterpiece” faithful.
Research found the series had a fusty, veddy-proper image in some eyes, while the word “Theatre” in its title felt old-fashioned, even off-putting. The mixed bag of programs from week to week also struck some viewers as confusing.
“You might watch Jane Tennison one week and Jane Austen the next week, and then Jane Eyre,” Eaton recalls.
Unveiled in December 2007, the reinvention effort trimmed “Theatre” from the series’ name, and gathered programming into what the series calls strands: “Masterpiece Classic,” “Masterpiece Contemporary” and, absorbing its sibling “Mystery!” anthology series that had been a PBS fixture since 1980, “Masterpiece Mystery!”
Each even came with a color-coded host. (Note how “Masterpiece Mystery!” host Alan Cumming is stylish in a dusky suit with blood-red tie and pocket handkerchief, hewing to the signature “Mystery!” color scheme.)
The rebranding has been a big success. “Masterpiece” claims a 50 percent growth in viewership last season, and even old-timers are resisting the urge to call it “Masterpiece Theatre.”
The initiative could easily have been a disaster.
“If I had known how risky a thing like that is to do — to take a well-known brand and rejuvenate it — I would have been terrified,” Eaton confides. “But I didn’t! I didn’t really know.”
Poised for the future, Eaton says she has “Masterpiece” programming charted through summer 2012.
And beyond that?
“I think the appetite for high-quality, noncommercial British drama is vigorous,” she says, and you sense she has ideas for feeding that appetite for many more seasons.
“I suppose I could retire pretty soon,” she muses, noting that she turns 64 in November. Then she quickly disabuses her listener of that notion: “But how can I?”
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