PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre" officially turned 25 Wednesday and got a new name that will be with it at least until the end of the century: "Mobil Masterpiece Theatre."
Mobil is the only corporate underwriter the network's longest-running drama series has ever had, but the company is "downsizing" and already has dropped its sponsorship of "Mystery!" as of the end of this season, so its continued sponsorship of "Masterpiece Theatre" was not a certainty until quite recently.
As a condition of renewing its support of the venerable series through the 1999-2000 TV season, Mobil asked for the name change, which its executives believe will give the company increased visibility. Boston's WGBH, which produces "Masterpiece Theatre," and executive producer Rebecca Eaton felt it was the least they could do, since the series carries no commercials.
"Masterpiece Theatre" has been celebrating its silver anniversary all season, even though it was at midseason -- Jan. 10, 1971 -- that the series began.
Ms. Eaton told TV critics in a meeting in California this week that this has been a banner season in terms of ratings.
She said the season opener -- Edith Wharton's "The Buccaneers" -- "was the most-watched program in the series" since ratings records have been kept (1989). She said four episodes of "Masterpiece Theatre" made PBS' top 10 shows for October -- the three episodes of "The Buccaneers" and "Prime Suspect IV" with Helen Mirren.
She also reported that Jane Austen's "Persuasion," which was made for "Masterpiece Theatre" but diverted to movie theaters first, has turned up on more than 100 critics' "Top 10" lists for the best movies of 1995. It will be shown on the TV series next season.
Such popularity for both "The Buccaneers" and "Persuasion" is especially gratifying to Ms. Eaton because they were co-productions between WGBH and the BBC, and she says she feels they've proved her instincts were right in putting the station's limited funds into those projects.
Still to come this season for "Masterpiece Theatre" are "The Final Cut" (Feb. 4-5), the rousing final chapter in the "House of Cards" trilogy with Ian Richardson as wicked Prime Minister Francis Urquhart; two more "Prime Suspect" movies; "Heavy Weather," a comedy that includes Peter O'Toole in the cast; and "Peacock Spring," a Rumer Godden love story made on location in India by director Christopher Morahan, his first project there since "The Jewel in the Crown."