Station screenings, promo barrage prep fans for Downton debut

By Dru Sefton

The Downton Abbey blitz is on, from festive station events to huge digital ads behind the famous New Year’s Eve countdown ball in Times Square.

While stations nationwide connect in person with thousands of passionate fans, PBS is busy making sure that everyone knows that the fourth season of the Masterpiece costume drama is quickly approaching, while also ensuring that it’s using the megahit to its maximum scheduling advantage.

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Downton Abbey fans at West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s party last month pose in front of a backdrop of Highclere Castle. (Photo: West Virginia Public Broadcasting)

Local Downton teas, parties, screenings and other gatherings are becoming annual occasions at a growing number of stations. Last year, some 112 pubTV outlets hosted the happenings; this year it’s 135, according to Masterpiece’s home station WGBH. More than 400 guests slogged through 8 inches of snow to attend the Boston station’s Dec. 14 screening.

Nationwide, PBS’s ad buys include broadcast, print, digital and outdoor, said PBS spokesperson Jennifer Byrne, who declined to discuss specific figures or whether that budget has grown over the years. Fifteen-second digital ads are flashing at shoppers on electronic screens in malls across the country. Print ads are running in US Weekly, People, Esquire and Woman’s Day, with online promos on EW.com and websites for Condé Nast publications Vanity Fair, New Yorker and GQ.

It all culminates in a promo blitz just before the Jan. 5 premiere, Byrne said. “We’re planning to heavy up on paid media on Jan. 3 to create a ‘roadblock’ for our audience leading into the premiere,” she said.

WGBH sent stations a screening toolkit with photos, invitation templates, posters, bookmarks, books for giveaways, pens, episode descriptions and trivia questions. A high-res digital photo of Highclere Castle, Downton’s real-life setting, was a popular backdrop for photos and selfies.

Downton Abbey “has been a bright spot in our winter schedule,” PBS President Paula Kerger modestly stated in an email to station executives Dec. 13.

Kerger said PBS is experimenting this season with pairing Downton with another Brit hit, Sherlock, which premieres on its home network of BBC One Jan. 1. The previous Sherlock season premiered in May on PBS, prompting grumbles from American fans of the detective mystery who dreaded the wait for their favorite detective show to return.

Sherlock will now premiere on PBS Jan. 19 and air immediately following Downton for several weeks. PBS will review the results of the schedule shift “to see how this works for stations and for viewers,” Kerger said.

Meanwhile, the excitement over all things Downton kicked off in New York the week of Dec. 9. Servers in period garb handed out more than 15,000 cups of tea and biscuits from a truck that stopped at various points across Manhattan. That sparked coverage in outlets including Time, People and the New York Daily News. TV coverage included an eight-minute Today segment, with hosts Al Roker and Matt Lauer mulling over where they might fit into the Downton hierarchy.

A massive digital ad in Times Square also launched that week. Downton characters appeared to speak directly to the million-plus revelers in Times Square on New Year’s Eve from a screen behind the famous countdown ball.

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Robert James-Collier, center, who plays underbutler Thomas Barrow, speaks during a Downton Abbey panel discussion in New York. (Photo: PBS)

On Dec. 10, Downton creator Julian Fellowes, Executive Producer Gareth Neame and several cast members sat down with Bill Carter of the New York Times for a chat before more than 600 guests, shot for exclusive use by PBS member stations.

A public screening and panel discussion with cast members Dec. 12 at the Times Center generated more than 10,000 ticket requests on Facebook; 300 lucky fans were selected by a lottery. The conversation streamed live, with more than 8,000 playbacks that night, according to PBS.

A few highlights of local Downton fever:

  • Mountain Lake PBS in Plattsburgh, N.Y., raised more than $10,000 at its 1920s gala Dec. 14. “I do have a sense Downton has raised the profile of the station,” said station spokesperson Jennifer Kowalczyk. “In emails and in comments on donation forms, people often comment on Downton Abbey.”
  • Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta added a second screening Dec. 18 due to popular demand after a Dec. 17 screening. Nearly 500 fans turned out for the two free screeners as well as a VIP after-party Dec. 17 for $75 a pop. “We had people join on site because they wanted to attend the party,” station spokesperson Mandy Wilson said, “and we have definitely benefited from the raised visibility that Downton has helped bring to public broadcasting.”
  • WETA’s Dec. 19 bash for 800 fans at the posh Marriott Wardman hotel in Washington, D.C., included buffets of appetizers and sweets, a classical combo to warm up the audience and remarks from the British Ambassador to the United States, Peter Westmacott. Guests brought “baby shower” gifts for character Lady Mary Crawley’s little son George to be donated to two local family charities.
  • West Virginia Public Broadcasting hosted two free events Dec. 17 attended by 200: one in Morgantown, at West Virginia University’s Creative Arts Center, and the other in Beckley at the Raleigh Playhouse and Theatre. “Anecdotally, Downton has increased viewership,” said spokesperson Shawn Patterson, “and we did receive angry calls and emails when Matthew was killed in the last episode of last season. They weren’t very happy about Sybil either.”
  • Crowds at WKAR’s screenings in East Lansing, Mich., have grown over several seasons to some 600 fans over two screenings Dec. 12 and 14. “This has become an annual free event for WKAR, and our fans absolutely love it,” said Susi Elkins, station manager. “Our first preview screening filled our auditorium on the MSU campus to capacity. For Season 3 last year, we moved off campus to a local theater where we filled the house for two showings and had to add a third to meet demand.”
  • Arizona’s KAET welcomed about 400 fans to a free screening at the Ritz Carlton in Phoenix, which included 120 “VIPs” who also paid $75 for a fancy sit-down dinner featuring dishes such as Beef Wellington with horseradish cream. Spokesperson Colleen O’Donnell Pierce said the annual event “has grown in attendance and stature each year” from Season 1 screenings at four local libraries. The event “is not a major revenue source,” she said. “This is more about connecting with the community and fostering affinity with the show.”

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