boston.com Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe
'Bleak House'
Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock in "Masterpiece Theatre: Bleak House." (Mike Hogan/BBC)

Hoping for a masterstroke

As audience dwindles, PBS readies a makeover for venerable series

It could be argued that the heroines of Jane Austen's novels are the precursors to "Desperate Housewives" -- or even the ladies of "Sex and the City." So if anyone can convince TV viewers that PBS's "Masterpiece Theatre" is relevant and modern, it might be a British woman who has been dead for nearly two centuries.

Of course, a new, living host could help, too.

Both will be enlisted as "Masterpiece Theatre," the iconic series produced by WGBH, prepares for an unprecedented makeover. At a conference for TV critics in Beverly Hills today , producers will outline a four-month Austen festival to launch the new season in January, including dramatizations (old and new) of all six Austen novels and a new biopic, "Miss Austen Regrets."

The Austen push is part of a much larger effort to rebrand the series as a whole, drawing in viewers who left long ago for flashier TV fare. Producers have a sense that with this new image, the future of the series is at stake. But with no major changes planned in the direction of programming, critics are already questioning whether new window dressing will make "Masterpiece," or PBS, feel relevant today.

The decision on a host to fill the shoes of Alistair Cooke and Russell Baker has not been made, and producers will not talk about their wish list. "It's worse than choosing a husband. Much worse," executive producer Rebecca Eaton said. "But it feels of about the same importance."

But some other branding details are emerging. The theme song by the French Baroque composer Jean-Joseph Mouret won't change. But the logo and title will, as the series splits into three sub-seasons: "Masterpiece Classics," "Masterpiece Contemporary," and the tentatively titled "Masterpiece Mystery." There might even be an official "Masterpiece" blogger dubbed the "Drama Queen," another effort to convince newbies that British drama can be fun.

"We realized that people who didn't know us were scared off by the perception of 'Masterpiece Theatre,' " Eaton said. In focus groups, she said, people feared the series would require time and work, like choking down a Shakespeare play each Sunday night. That's the paradox "Masterpiece Theatre" faces in a crowded TV landscape: It is recognized, admired, but often underwatched.

ABC's "Desperate Housewives," which airs opposite "Masterpiece Theatre" on Sundays at 9 p.m., drew an average of 17 million viewers per episode last season, according to Nielsen ratings. "Bleak House," the award-winning "Masterpiece" adaptation of the Dickens novel, starring Gillian Anderson of "The X-Files," drew an average of about 3.1 million viewers per episode, replayed by PBS stations throughout each week. Other "Masterpiece" productions last season fared better. "Jane Eyre" averaged more than 5.1 million viewers per episode, and "Prime Suspect VII" drew an average of 4.8 million per episode. For the 2006-07 season, "Masterpiece" reached an average of 3,884,000 viewers per week.

With the rebranding, WGBH hopes to attract corporate sponsorship as well as viewers. "Masterpiece" has hobbled along for years without corporate funding, after Mobil Oil, which spent $250 million on the series over 30 years, dropped its sponsorship in 2002 after it became ExxonMobil.

In many ways, the "Masterpiece" saga has mirrored the public-relations woes of PBS, said University of Florida communications professor Sylvia Chan-Olmsted , who has studied the branding of public television. Viewers "have a very high opinion, expectation, trust for PBS. But behaviorally, they don't watch it," Chan-Olmsted said. "When I talk to my students, the opinion is, 'Well, it's high quality, but it's boring.' "

It is that perception that "Masterpiece" producers decided to tackle about a year ago. With a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, they hired a firm to interview executives from PBS, CPB, and various PBS stations, as well as members and viewers. They found that viewers like the programming once they watch it, but the series's reputation is an obstacle. Some people referred to "Masterpiece," Eaton said, as a "dusty jewel that's hard to find" or a series made for "horny older women."

While the research found that "Masterpiece" has a female audience base, it found "millennials, too," said Margaret Drain , WGBH's vice president for national programming. "It's women in their 30s who love costume drama, who are Jane Austen freaks. And Jane Austen is undergoing a renaissance right now. There's even a Jane Austen action doll."

So Austen, Drain said, seemed a perfect person to embody a new "Masterpiece" brand. The Austen mini-festival will encompass "Miss Austen Regrets," based on Austen's letters and diaries; new versions of the novels "Northanger Abbey," "Persuasion," "Mansfield Park," and "Sense and Sensibility"; and re airings of "Emma" starring Kate Beckinsale and "Pride and Prejudice" with Colin Firth .

The search for a living ambassador has been more difficult, Eaton said. When Baker left the show for scheduling and money reasons in 2004, producers decided to experiment with having no host but have concluded that a strong personality could help distinguish the series. They've had long debates about whether to choose an established star or groom an up-and-comer whose image can become as entwined with "Masterpiece" as Cooke's was.

Whoever takes the job will have different duties, Eaton said; rather than offering a long exposition, a new host will likely give a quick introduction, suitable for modern-day attention spans. And he or she might not be surrounded by the current array of gilded picture frames and leather-bound books.

With the "Masterpiece Contemporary" sub-series, producers also hope to remind viewers that some "Masterpiece" dramas, such as "Prime Suspect," are set in the present day. And they are looking for ways to make the series more widely available, seeking rights for podcasting, streaming , and video on demand.

But with programming mostly continuing as usual, critics are questioning whether the rebranding will be enough. "They might as well just see if they can get the TV rights for the Titanic, because all they're doing is the proverbial changing the deck chairs," said Jeffrey Chester, executive director at the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington, D.C.-based media advocacy group. "These series now have been on for decades and they've grown too comfortable," Chester said. '

But Eaton thinks producers may have lit on a moment when Anglophilia feels fresh again. "Britishness is very cool at the moment," she said, citing the popularity of such British actors as Keira Knightley , Hugh Laurie , and Clive Owen .

Of course, the TV viewing public has lately gotten wind of a different sort of Brit, via the less-constrained productions on premium cable. After HBO offered "Rome," a historical drama that made significant nods to the old "Masterpiece" chestnut "I Claudius," Showtime presented "The Tudors," a rich and racy costume drama about a young Henry VIII.

"Masterpiece," Eaton said, won't go that far.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. For more on TV, go to viewerdiscretion.net.

Correction: Due to incorrect information provided to the Globe, a previous version of this article reported incorrect ratings data for several "Masterpiece Theatre" programs.

(Correction: Because of incorrect information provided to the Globe by WGBH, several ratings figures for "Masterpiece Theatre" programs last season were incorrect in a Page One story and graphic yesterday. "Bleak House" averaged 3.1 million viewers per episode, "Jane Eyre" averaged 5.1 million viewers per episode, and "Prime Suspect VII" averaged 4.8 million viewers per episode.)

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES