PBS Prepares for Life After Downton Abbey; Responds to Ben Affleck Controversy

Michael Schneider
Nick Briggs / © Carnival Films for Masterpiece/PBS

DOWNTON ABBEY, Jim Carter, 'Episode 2.5', (Season 2, aired Oct. 19, 2011), 2010-. photo: Nick Briggs / © Carnival Films for Masterpiece/PBS

PBS will send Downton Abbey off with roses.

The Masterpiece period drama—the most-watched in the history of PBS—returns for its sixth and final season on Sunday, January 3. Two days beforehand, on the morning of New Year's Day, PBS will sponsor a Downton Abbey-themed parade float at the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena.

"It has made a big difference for a lot of reasons," PBS CEO Paula Kerger told reporters at the Television Critics Association press tour on Saturday. "There is no question it has been a great gift. It brought a lot of people back to public television. We really tried to take advantage of that... At a time when the financial meltdown was challenging everyone, it gave us a lift."

Before Downton retires, PBS will utilize the show to help launch its new American historic drama Mercy Street, which will premiere Sunday, January 17 at 10/9c. The drama, starring Josh Radnor, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Gary Cole and Cherry Jones, takes place in Alexandria, Va., during the Civil War, and centers on a private home that is seized and turned into a hospital.

Mercy Street represents a rare original PBS production set in the United States. Ideally, PBS would like to expand to more original drama set in America. "Our content team is interested in telling American stories," Kerger said. "Our niche is drama based on works of literary, art or historic fact... There are so many great American stories that have not been told."

But it comes down to funding. "I'm not announcing a big American drama initiative for PBS," Kerger said, noting the expensive price tag for Mercy Street. "I'm cautiously optimistic this will lead us down a path where we can do more of this kind of programming. Our entire content budget is less than the promotion budget of HBO for one big series."

Kerger also addressed the controversy surrounding the series Finding Our Roots, which was criticized after it was revealed that producers agreed to hide details of a slave-owning ancestor in Ben Affleck's family tree.

"I don't think it's tarnished PBS," Kerger said, who described the situation as "unfortunate"—and expressed her displeasure that PBS found out about it thanks to the Sony email hacks. "We have to adhere to a standard. We were serious about it and we took the time to look at it very carefully. We made sure we have the appropriate oversight moving forward. We really do take this seriously but also want to be fair and not punitive."

Changes to the show's staff and oversight will include the addition of another researcher, as well as an independent genealogist who can vet the material.

That means a third season of Finding Our Roots remains a possibility, although there's no timetable for its return. Complicating matters, plans had already been made to switch the producing station from WNET New York to WETA Washington, D.C., even before the controversy erupted. "We're working with WETA and producers to ensure they have the right processes in place. I'm hopeful that will be put in place and there will be a third season."

Additionally, Kerger applauded the concerted effort by competitors Discovery Channel and National Geographic Channel to return to their roots with programming that contains more legitimate scientific information. "If we have helped to inspire Discovery and NatGeo to do more serious science then I would say, mission accomplished," she said.

Meanwhile, the BBC has not yet set the airdate in the U.K. for the return of Sherlock, which means Masterpiece isn't able to announce when it will air in the United States. It will air "soon-ish," producers said. As previously announced, the upcoming special takes place in Victorian London as opposed to modern day.

There will be three more episodes in production this spring, which again, will air sometime "soon-ish."

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