In the midst of the current public television whirlwind of excitement surrounding the recent resumption of our annual visits to Downton Abbey and imminent return of Sherlock, one simple question has been plaguing me: Why isn’t PBS producing its own must-see drama programming, rather than simply co-funding or buying pre-existing series from overseas?
I admit, it wasn’t actually Downton or Sherlock that initially got me started on this train of thought. Instead, it was finally catching up with The Bletchley Circle on Netflix over the holidays. Another British import, it’s a show that — like Call The Midwife — runs outside the Masterpiece brand and a reminder that, in case you hadn’t been paying attention, PBS is the home to some of the best drama available on American television these days. (Bletchley Circle is definitely something that lives up to that boast. The first season centers on four women, former code breakers during the Second World War, investigating a serial killer in 1950s London)
The thing is, of course, PBS may be the home to some of the best drama available on American television these days, but none of it is domestic. That the channel can manage to showcase great British drama is a wonderful thing, especially in the case of shows like Downton and Sherlock, which have managed to escape from the ghetto of stereotypes about PBS and become genuine mass phenomena. Without PBS, it’s hard to imagine such shows getting much attention in the U.S. outside of BBC America or the oft-overlooked, due-for-a-reappraisal Acorn Media, the latter of which offers shows that for whatever reason seem to have slipped through PBS’ net; why Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries isn’t part of the Masterpiece Mystery strand remains, well, a mystery to me — but still, surely they could do more.
PBS already has credibility and an audience (10.2 million people tuned in for the premiere of Downton Abbey‘s fourth season; that’s more people than watched Sleepy Hollow live in November, for context). An attempt to create something homegrown to exist alongside the imports would strengthen the idea of PBS as a destination for lovers of smart, well-done drama.
Sure, there are reasons both for and against. For: It’s not as if PBS doesn’t have original programming already (well, PBS stations do, as opposed to some monolithic sole PBS entity); I’ve watched too many hours of Antiques Roadshow and This Old House not to know that. So why wouldn’t they want to make dramas that they could own all the rights to and profit from? Against: Because dramas are more expensive than This Old House, and maybe that’s more money than any member station can afford to gamble with, considering that it’s much harder to actually make a hit drama than recommend doing so. For: Surely writers and directors would be thrilled at the chance to make something freed of the network television format of act-outs, ad breaks and appealing to the advertisers. Against: Yes, but that’s why they make shows for video on demand and cable channels.
But, whether by accident or design, the Downton/Sherlock effect has made PBS into a genuine player when it comes to television drama, with the kind of breathless coverage and anticipation normally reserved for HBO or Netflix — outlets where series are events as much as anything else. In almost every other case when that has happened, the question has always been “What will they do next?” It feels just a little disappointing if PBS’ answer ends up being “buy up the American rights for another existing show,” instead of “take a risk on trying to create something new from scratch, informed by the same sensibilities we use when buying things.”