Much like us, PBS is pretty obsessed with all things British right now. At the Television Critics Association summer press tour yesterday, the public broadcaster held a well-received panel, during which the network excitedly praised all the UK-created programming that is giving them its best numbers in years. Masterpiece is up 107 percent from three years ago! Downton Abbey — the ITV-produced smash that will return for a third season early next year — is of course leading the charge on that, but it is not the only popular import.
As Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton puts it, "This is not just the Downton effect. This is the Sherlock effect, the [Inspector] Lewis effect, the [Miss] Marple effect and the Wallander effect." And she is correct. While Downton is the shining star of Masterpiece, and thus the entirety of PBS, there are other series that have also connected well with American audiences. Which is great! These shows are, for the most part, smart and sophisticated entertainment, even if they do, like Downton's second season, occasionally tend toward the soapy. But is the success sustainable? And should PBS maybe consider, y'know, making more of its own series?
It's all well and good for the network — which is an important and vital American institution, at least on principle if not alway in actual viewership — to ship over a bunch of British shows and then crow about their success in the States. And yes, sometimes Masterpiece series are co-commissioned by PBS. But it seems like there is a perhaps too-heavy reliance on British programming that might be shortsighted. This isn't BBC America, this is our public television! We need our own stories. They can still be stuffy and period-y and meaningful glances-y, but they should at least be our own. Obviously the costs of actually producing a full series are pretty high and PBS is famously not terribly wealthy, but we'd hope it's something they'd look into. Yes the Brits are better at cutesy murder and aching unrequited love than we are, but that's not all there is out there, story-wise.
Or, eh, maybe it is, for that audience. And maybe we should just let PBS enjoy its time in the glowing sun of relevancy and leave well enough alone. After all, Downton Abbey can't go on forever.