PBS: Premium TV for Premium Viewers

The New York Times reports today:

Around the time the first season of “Downton Abbey” had its premiere on the “Masterpiece” anthology series last January, PBS began taking a more strategic approach to programming. It has branded nights with clusters of shows about one subject — for example, the arts, science or the literary imports from “Masterpiece.” The anthology introduced younger and more male-skewing shows like “Sherlock,” a mystery series set in modern-day London that had its premiere in 2010, and a continuation of the popular British series “Upstairs, Downstairs.”

This fall, PBS embarked on a marketing blitz to promote Ken Burns’s “Prohibition” documentary miniseries, including a joint round-table discussion with Mr. Burns and the creators of HBO’s drama “Boardwalk Empire,” which takes place during the Prohibition era.

An aggressive promotional campaign helped “Downton Abbey” win six Emmy Awards, including best mini-series or movie, away from competitors on HBO and Starz.

“The thinking was that they had to up their game,” said Kliff Kuehl, president and chief executive of KCPT, a public television station in Kansas City, Mo. “That’s what we’ve evolved to — trying to give people that pay-TV moment.”

So why not let people pay for it? Why are taxpayers paying for it? Let me say that I love “Downton Abbey” and would gladly pay $10 a month for a network that broadcast it – if I weren’t already paying for it on April 15.

But maybe PBS is bringing “Downton Abbey” to people who can’t afford premium channels. Surely that’s the public-interest rationale for public broadcasting. But maybe not. The Times goes on to say that “prime-time hits like “Downton” and “Sherlock” … appeal largely to better-off viewers.” And advertisers – oops, program sponsors – know it:

Viking River Cruises has signed on as “Masterpiece’s” corporate sponsor, filling a five-year void that began when Exxon Mobil withdrew its support in 2004. Viking will send mailers to customers pegged to the “Downton Abbey” Season 2 premier. A corporate message will come on right after the show’s host, Laura Linney, introduces the program. “Our demographic is affluent baby boomers, 55-plus,” said Richard Marnell, Viking’s senior vice president of marketing. “We’d been looking for a broadcast partner that reaches that group.”

PBS: your tax dollars at work, bringing upscale drama to upscale viewers.

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