Life without 'Downton Abbey'

How PBS is planning for a future that doesn't include the Crawley clan

Fans of "Downton Abbey" can expect a number of happy endings and sentimental moments when it signs off this Sunday after six seasons on PBS.

I won’t give away any of the details about the final chapter of this addictive, soapy period piece, which already ended its run in the UK on Christmas Day. It’s been the most-talked-about program on PBS since the Ken Burns documentary miniseries "The Civil War" in 1990. I don’t necessarily need to sing the show’s praises, but this cultural institution boosted the overall ratings for PBS, brought in increased donations, racked up 12 Emmy Awards and three Golden Globes, sparked viewing parties across the country, and turned PBS into an entertainment brand.

I’m just sayin’.

Yet even with all the accolades and ratings it’s brought PBS, what I find refreshing, and unusual, is that the network is resisting the temptation of trying to clone its success with a spin-off of some kind.

"’Downton’ has been a tremendous boost for our public media system, and we’re focused on how we can build on this success," said Paula Kerger, president and CEO at the recent Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour. "If we have the opportunity to have something that aligns like ‘Downton’ again, that would be huge. But we’re not spending our time going, ‘We’ve got to find the next ‘Downton Abbey.’ We just want to find really strong dramas that we feel the public will enjoy."

Unlike broadcast networks that often confuse success with imitation, PBS’ attitude about programming is part of the reason why it has a strong reputation for unique, dramatic storytelling. While the mass success of "Downton Abbey" is certainly not the norm for PBS, nor is attracting the largest audience the main concern for the publicly funded broadcaster, it has given PBS a stronger platform from which to introduce the next potential hits.

The network is hoping it found one in a new historical piece it is lining up for the "Downton" time slot in 2017, "Victoria," an eight-part drama starring Jenna Coleman as the young Queen Victoria. It may give viewers the type of soap-opera melodrama that they’ve come to love in "Downton Abbey," but they won’t get a continuation of the plotline. It is not like "Knots Landing" from "Dallas," or "The Colbys" from "Dynasty." Nor is it the next "NCIS," "CSI" or "Chicago," dramas that have produced multiple spin-offs. This is an entirely different tale, but one with the historical roots that viewers have come to appreciate from the network.

PBS, of course, has had many dramatic successes in the past. "Masterpiece" has been a staple for 45 years and has included such illustrious titles as ""I, Claudius"; "Prime Suspect"; and "Upstairs, Downstairs," which was unsuccessfully revived in 2010, perhaps a victim of the arrival of "Downton" the same year. It also has a franchise favorite in "Sherlock," with Benedict Cumberbatch, which will be returning with three new episodes. And "Call the Midwife," another favorite among the critics, has eight new episodes beginning next month. But it was "Downton Abbey," a soap opera dressed up as a period piece, that managed to hit all the right notes.

"What we learned from ‘Downton Abbey’ is finding the characters the viewers care about and want to see develop over a longer period of time than just a few episodes," said Beth Hoppe, chief programming executive and general manager, general audience programming at PBS. "’Downton Abbey’ was not an immediate huge hit. It really took off in season three. And the overall success of this show is also a result of time shifting and the attention in social media. Anything we develop in the future must take the entire picture into account."

PBS is using the final episodes of "Downton Abbey" to ignite interest in the new Civil War-set medical drama "Mercy Street." Airing out of "Downton Abbey," the show, which has been heavily promoted by the network in recent weeks, opened at a respectable 3.3 million viewers in January.

As much as this Sunday’s episode is an ending, there may also be a new beginning in the works for the fictional clan we’ve come to love called Crawley. There are talks about a possible theatrical version of the show. Maggie Smith, unfortunately, has publicly stated she will not be participating in the film if it gets made. 

If rumors about the movie being set more than 10 years into the future are true, it means her sharp-tongued Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, will probably only be a memory. But what a memory she will be.

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