To many people, PBS equates boring, educational programming. For the many years, if not decades, that was the case. Recently, though, PBS has been in the process of undergoing somewhat of a facelift. Under its long-time Masterpiece banner, PBS has introduced shows that have been critically-acclaimed and have brought something to PBS that they haven’t experienced in a long time — big ratings.

For over 40 years, PBS has imported programming from Europe, mostly from the United Kingdom. These programs have aired in primetime under various Masterpiece banners, such as Masterpiece Theatre, Masterpiece Mystery!, and Masterpiece Contemporary. (All of these have since been combined into one program called Masterpiece.) Many series have aired, mostly period pieces, as they are considered more educational or appropriate for public television. Until recently, no one gave Masterpiece or any of PBS’ non-fiction program any thought. That all changed in 2010.

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Sherlock

In 2010, PBS aired season one of a new BBC program called Sherlock, penned by Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat. Though the show was critically acclaimed, not many people expected the show to do anything special on PBS. What happened surprised everyone. The show became a massive hit. PBS experienced ratings that rivaled the Big four networks for the first time since Ken Burns’ critically acclaimed Civil War documentary series in 1990.

Seeing what quality programming can do on PBS, the network decided to try its luck again and import the period piece Downton Abbey in 2011. Arguably, the show was even more successful than Sherlock. These two series single-handedly rejuvenized PBS and gave the network executives a new outlook on its primetime programming. The network has since aired more popular imported programs, such as Call the Midwife, Mr. Selfridge, and The Paradise, though none of these shows have had the same success as Downton Abbey and Sherlock.

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Downton Abbey

Executives at PBS have noticed the unprecedented spike in its narrative programming popularity. They have begun to reevaluate the network’s primetime lineup. Earlier this year, as part of that reevaluation, the network introduced its first original drama series in 12 years, Mercy Street. The series is also a period piece, set during the Civil War.

It would not be surprising to see this trend continue for PBS. The network has not seen ratings like these in over two decades. Though the network doesn’t thrive on ratings, because it does not make money off of advertising revenues, executives still want to see the network thrive. PBS is going to continue investing money into importing foreign programming. Now, however, executives are going to be more choosey with the programs they import because the one thing all of the network’s popular programs have in common is quality.

It’s interesting that as TV is fading, PBS is becoming more popular than it’s ever been.

It’s interesting that as TV is fading, PBS is becoming more popular than it’s ever been. Most networks are seeing all-time lows in their ratings, but PBS is seeing all-time highs. People are flocking to PBS as the network is importing more and more high-quality shows from Britain. It is truly a new era of television. Streaming and PBS are more popular than ever. Who would have ever thought?


Video production school attendee Evan!Matt is a 23-year-old producer, director, and writer from DFW, Texas, who holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Film, TV, and Digital Media from Texas Christian University and is now an apprentice at the Center for Creative Media. His ultimate goal is to bring glory to God as a showrunner on TV. He is fueled by laughter, music, and donuts. Lots and lots of donuts.

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