PBS acquires new British drama to anchor Sunday nights

Downton Abbey to return next January, new Ken Burns film to debut with major educational outreach

By Dru Sefton

This article has been updated and reposted with additional information.

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — As public television’s chief program exec and top producers unveiled highlights of the fall 2013 primetime schedule, PBS signaled its expanding role in shaping new productions and cutting deals for programs that have potential to strengthen the national schedule.

Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid star in Last Tango in Halifax, a BBC romantic drama debuting on PBS this fall (Photo: BBC)

Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid star in Last Tango in Halifax, a BBC romantic drama debuting on PBS this fall (Photo: BBC)

PBS paired with BBC Worldwide to bring Last Tango in Halifax, a hit drama on the U.K.’s BBC starring Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid as childhood sweethearts who reunite after 60 years apart, to Sundays at 8 p.m. in early September. Call the Midwife, a drama that debuted in the same timeslot last fall, will return in 2014. PBS acquired the latter drama to boost primetime viewing on Sunday nights, a scheduling strategy that paid off.

PBS is “taking greater control of our pipeline and our fate,” said Chief Programming Executive Beth Hoppe, who cut the deal to acquire Call the Midwife, during a May 14 PBS Annual Meeting session previewing upcoming primetime shows.

Masterpiece Executive Producer Rebecca Eaton, also a key player in reviving PBS primetime viewing within the past year, announced that the smash hit Downton Abbey will premiere its fourth season Jan. 5, 2014.

Downton helped propel PBS’s primetime Sunday audience to its current 2.2 average, up 25 percent from 1.75 a year ago, Hoppe reported to pubcasting colleagues gathered in a cavernous ballroom at the Fontainebleau Hotel. The overall primetime average grew 5 percent to 1.46, enough to move PBS up two spots among all networks, to ninth place.

“Pretty great at a time when many networks are flat or on the way down,” Hoppe noted. “We are the only major broadcast network to have an increase.”

Eaton told representatives of local stations that they shared in Downton’s success. “I feel like we were all pitched an incredible fastball and you all knew how to hit it out of the park — and it’s still going!” she said.

‘Taking greater control’

Hoppe, who was promoted to public TV’s top programming job in December, told station reps that she is working to keep building on PBS’s recent successes. “The view from 36,000 feet gives us a perspective that no individual producer can have,” she said. “By taking a holistic view of our programming and determining those areas of our service that need strengthening, we are taking greater control of our pipeline and of our fate. The kind of exciting new content that made PBS great in the first place will continue to be the differentiating factor as our commercial counterparts embrace Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty.”

PBS is “spending a lot of time brainstorming with producers to find the next brand-defining series for PBS,” Hoppe said. “We’re developing new concepts, looking at creating new genres and considering the return of American drama to public TV.” PBS declined to provide details regarding Hoppe’s plans to revive American drama, but Variety recently reported that she commissioned a pilot script from Dennis Leoni, e.p. and writer of Resurrection Blvd., which ran on Showtime more than a decade ago.

Hoppe turned to BBC Worldwide to land Last Tango in Halifax, which was a hit with British audiences during its first season debut in 2012. The six-part romantic drama won a 2013 BAFTA for best drama from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. It premieres Sept. 8.

PBS also previewed several documentary programs to debut this fall:

    • The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, a six-hour series featuring Henry Louis Gates that explores 500 years of cultural history. Producer Dylan McGee described it as Gates’s “most personal journey yet.” It airs Tuesdays Oct. 22 to Nov. 26.
    • Five programs marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In addition to a one-hour special planned for Nov. 11, PBS will present a two-parter from American Experience; Nova’s “Cold Case JFK,” examining whether new forensic techniques would have yielded a more conclusive explanation for the President’s killing; and, from Secrets of the Dead, “One o’ Clock” (w.t.), chronicling how news of the assassination spread, from the moment that gunshots rang out in Dallas through the announcement of Kennedy’s death one hour and eight minutes later.
    • “The Address,” a film by Ken Burns that follows students in Greenwood School in Putney, Vt., as they memorize President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in its entirety. The school serves boys with a range of severe learning disabilities who struggle learning to recite the speech and ultimately succeed.
      Filmmaker Ken Burns encouraged public TV colleagues to participate in a major educational campaign tied to his film on the Gettysburg Address. (Photo: PBS)

      Filmmaker Ken Burns encouraged public TV colleagues to participate in a major educational campaign tied to his film on the Gettysburg Address. (Photo: PBS)

      The film, which is still in postproduction, will be backed by an ambitious outreach project encouraging students across the country to learn the speech. “Public media can reach every student in the country; it can reach every adult,” said Burns, who delivered a keynote address during the session. “We intend to challenge all of them to join these boys in memorizing the speech.”

      Burns is working to finish the film, which will run from 90 minutes to two hours in length, and prepare it for broadcast Nov. 19, the 150th anniversary of the battlefield proclamation.

    • A multipart Frontline documentary about the growing problem of brain injuries among former National Football League players. It was produced in collaboration with ESPN and will premiere in October.

      The film was presented in Miami Beach during a luncheon celebrating the 30th anniversary of PBS’s signature investigative series. Deputy Executive Producer Raney Aronson moderated a panel featuring Dwayne Bray, senior coordinating producer for ESPN; Frontline producer Michael Kirk; and Hall of Famer Harry Carson of the New York Giants.

      Carson said that if he had known during his football career what he knows now about brain injuries, he would not have played football. He gave his young grandchildren golf clubs for Christmas, hoping to steer them away from the game. Carson also has suffered multiple concussions and doesn’t know what future neurological problems he may endure.

      “This is a big and heartbreaking story,” Kirk said, noting that 4,000 former NFL players and their spouses are currently part of a class-action lawsuit against the league.

  • Big Ideas with Steven Johnson, a miniseries funded by the PBS/CPB Program Challenge Fund, has potential to expand into a continuing series, Hoppe said. Johnson, a digital Renaissance man with 1.5 million Twitter followers and 1.3 million hits on his TED Talks presentation, is author of the book Where Good Ideas Come From. For the series, he examines the roots of innovation and how to fuel more of it.
Questions, comments, tips? seftond@current.org
Corrections: This post has been revised to report the premiere date for Downton Abbey‘s fourth season as Jan. 5, 2014. An earlier version also erroneously reported details about PBS’s presentation of  Last Tango in Halifax. It will be scheduled as a lead-in to Masterpiece, not within the series itself.

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