American TV has entered the post-Downton era. The popularity of Downton Abbey, the British period drama, is unmistakable: The recent third season finale attracted 12.3 million U.S. viewers, beating all the network and cable competition in its timeslot.
But Downton isn’t just a critical and ratings success for PBS, the American public broadcaster that airs the show as part of its long-running Masterpiece series. It appears to have ushered in a new era for British programming on U.S. television, characterized by savvy marketing campaigns for content once considered too niche for American audiences.
The Downton effect
PBS has been airing period dramas on Masterpiece since 1971, bringing hit British series to smaller U.S. audiences. Masterpiece was the American home for Upstairs, Downstairs, Prime Suspect and The Forsyte Saga, all of which became modest hits in the United States, mostly among older viewers.
In the summer of 2010, with the launch of the first seasons of Downton Abbey and Sherlock, PBS began an aggressive new programming and marketing strategy in an attempt to lure younger viewers from basic and premium cable television.
The strategy included ad buys on BBC America and CNN, live roundtable discussions with actors and producers and a Twitter campaign involving Downton actors sending tweets about the show.
With Downton on hiatus until January 2014, PBS is trying to keep the momentum going with Mr. Selfridge, a co-production with London’s ITV studios about the flamboyant American founder of the British department store Selfridges.
Taking a page from the Downton marketing playbook, PBS is making a big splash with Mr. Selfridge, hosting live Twitter events to lure younger viewers and parading series star Jeremy Piven around the Hollywood promotional circuit.
Remakes and resurgences
HBO, the premium cable network, also has a history of bringing British series to the U.S, including Rome and Five Days, co-produced with the BBC, an ITV rival when it comes to period dramas.
This year HBO used a new approach when launching Parade’s End, which stars Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch as an aristocrat trapped in a marriage to an unfaithful wife. HBO’s strategy included online featurettes, interviews with the cast and a set tour in Architectural Digest.
The success of British content on U.S. airwaves also seems to have renewed the American networks’ appetites for American remakes of popular British series.
Until recently, for every hit remake such as The Office, there were multiple failures such as Coupling and The IT Crowd.
But some of this year’s most critically acclaimed American programs are adaptations of British series, including HBO’s Veep (from the creator of the British sitcom The Thick of It), Showtime’s Shameless, Syfy’s Being Human and Netflix’s House of Cards.
Another show that seems to have found its footing with American audiences is Doctor Who, the iconic British sci-fi series. The show, which recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, is one of the most popular shows on Twitter, and has even been credited with rising sales of bow ties.
While Doctor Who had a loyal following in the U.S. long before Julian Fellowes introduced us to the Crawleys, its resurgence raises the question: Would a cult British sci-fi series have made the cover of Entertainment Weekly in the pre-Downton era of American television?