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'Downton Abbey' halo effect can be heavenly for PBS affiliates

TelevisionTelevision IndustryMedia IndustryDownton Abbey (tv program)PBS (tv network)

They might be a little snooty, but it would be hard to find a family more welcome in these parts than the Crawleys of “Downton Abbey” — at least in Owings Mills, home of Maryland Public Television.

Just as “American Idol” in its heyday used to attract tens of thousands of new viewers to Fox affiliates like WBFF in Baltimore, so has “Downton Abbey” come to be a ratings, promotional and fundraising bonanza for PBS affiliates like MPT.

“The total audience for ‘Downton Abbey’ is nearly twice what our other leading programs deliver on an episode-by-episode basis,” says Steven Schupak, chief content officer.

“Having that large an audience is a wonderful thing for a PBS affiliate,” he adds. “It raises all our boats and brings more attention to our channel and its other offerings. And that kind of attention provides an opportunity to leverage its popularity with other MPT activities. For the longest time, PBS has been searching for a program you can call a big hit. And when you have it, you have to do everything you can to take advantage.”

Season 4 of the highest-rated drama in PBS history begins tonight with the first of eight new episodes, picking up six months after the death of Matthew Crawley, husband of Lady Mary and financial savior of the ever-threatened estate. But like other PBS affiliates around the country, MPT has been riding the wave of last year’s success for months with pledge drives keyed to “Downton,” public screenings of yet-to-air episodes and even a trip to England for area fans of the show to see Highclere Castle, where the show is filmed.

Viewership from Seasons 2 to 3 more than doubled on MPT, with the number of adult viewers rising from 69,458 in 2012 to 161,408 for last year’s run. Nationally, the audience for Season 3 of “Downton Abbey” clocked in at 24.1 million.

By public television standards, those are game-changing ratings. The only commercial network with more Maryland viewers on Sunday nights when “Downton” aired last year was CBS, which featured “The Good Wife,” then the highest-rated drama on network TV. Public television rarely beats the commercial networks in primetime, head-to-head competition during a sweeps ratings period.

Indicative of both the show’s popularity and the ways in which MPT has been trying to “leverage” that appeal are two “screening events” being held this weekend at the Music Center at Strathmore in Montgomery County and at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts in Owings Mills.

Tickets were free but had to be ordered in advance, and both were sellouts, according to Schupak. Strathmore officially seats 1,976, while the Gordon Center’s capacity is 550.

“Approximately 2,000 at Strathmore [on Friday] for a television show that is being delivered to everyone’s home two days later — that’s unbelievable,” Schupak says. “We did this last year, and a lot of folks came in costumes. … It’s a wonderful way for people to see other fans of the program up close and share their passion for the stories and characters.”

An even better way to share their passion was to take the MPT/Virgin Atlantic “Christmas trip” to Highclere Castle.

It included: an “MPT exclusive Christmas season event” and a three-course dinner served in the castle’s library.

The tour was also a sellout, with about 70 fans from the MPT viewing area on board, according to Larry Unger, MPT’s president and CEO, who accompanied the group.

“This sort of venture wins friends for MPT and deepens connections between us and viewers,” Unger wrote in an email. “The Christmas Ball at Highclere was really very well done, and I heard nothing but wonderful things from the folks on the trip.”

Rick Lore, vice president for development, was also on the tour, which provided an excellent opportunity for fundraising.

“Many of the people who take a trip such as this are some of our biggest supporters,” Schupak says. “And so, it was wonderful to build that relationship with the people who support us at higher level — or could be a prospect for someone who could do that in the future.”

Schupak says the tour was so successful that MPT is talking about trying it with another popular public television show, “Doc Martin,” a comedy starring Martin Clunes as a smug London surgeon who suddenly finds himself in general practice in the quirky, seaside Cornish village of Portwenn.

While the business models for commercial and public TV obviously differ — with one based on advertising revenue and the other on contributions, grants and public funding — MPT’s efforts to leverage the success of “Downton” are not all that different from what Fox affiliates did with “Idol.”

Stations like Baltimore’s WBFF ran “Idol” contests and brought the winners out to Los Angeles for the finals, providing them with backstage access to the judges and contestants. And just as MPT relentlessly promotes “Downton” in many of its other shows, so did Fox 45 pepper its daytime newscasts with “live coverage” by one of its reporters from Los Angeles during the final weeks of the season.

The idea is to bring some of your customers as close to the flame as you can, while reminding all of them that only you have the flame.

But as savvy as MPT and Virgin Atlantic might be in promoting their UK trips on-air and in social media, in the end, it still comes down to content. Viewers will only want to go on those real trips to Highclere Castle or Portwenn if the TV viewing experience is a pleasurable one — if the shows transport them to those fictional worlds and they enjoy the hour or half-hour they spend there.

Sunday’s opening episode of Season 4 of “Downton Abbey” is astonishingly efficient in instantly drawing viewers back into its richly textured upstairs/downstairs milieu.

As the house comes to a new day’s life, news of a servant’s desertion in the night spreads through the kitchen, halls and rooms.

Meanwhile, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) lies in bed listening but emotionally unresponsive to the waking cries of her infant son. The bleak landscape the camera shows as she rises and looks out her bedroom window mirrors her inner life in the aftermath of her husband’s death.

Creator-writer Julian Fellowes and director David Evans create the mood and tone of her depression with a few sure-handed brush strokes of the landscape. Much of the drama in the first episode comes from the struggle to pull her back from what one character refers to as the “land of the dead.”

As that language suggests, “Downton” is a series that fully embraces its melodramatic core — improbable excesses and all. And while there’s nothing quite as large and historic as the sinking of the Titanic or World War I to send the Crawleys catapulting down the road to possible ruin in Season 4, they are perfectly capable of doing it on their own — especially the smug, hidebound and knuckleheaded Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), who becomes more a foil than ever to the women who surround him.

None cuts him down to size in Season 4 quite like his mother, Violet (Maggie Smith). And I am happy to report that the countess dowager has a larger role than ever this year — and most of the very best lines from Fellowes.

Who wouldn’t want to visit a TV world where a talent like Maggie Smith is showcased and a character like Violet Crawley is cherished?

Smart call by MPT in guessing that some viewers would want to dress up like such characters or even journey to the place where this Sunday-night magic is made.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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TelevisionTelevision IndustryMedia IndustryDownton Abbey (tv program)PBS (tv network)
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