Chattanooga Now Courter: Lessons from 'Masterpiece' apply elsewhere

Chattanooga Now Courter: Lessons from 'Masterpiece' apply elsewhere

February 3rd, 2012 by Barry Courter in Chattnow Outabout

Rebecca Eaton has been the executive producer of "Masterpiece Theatre" since 1985, so she has both an intimate knowledge of the PBS series and a true love for its mission of presenting classic works.

Back in 2007, she became keenly aware that the show was losing some of its cachet. People still loved it, but it was "beginning to be that program that my parents used to watch."

She decided to take a hard look at everything about the award-winning series, "because I didn't want it to be mutton dressed as lamb or, put another way, the older lady in a too-short skirt."

Eaton will be the keynote speaker for the Be More Awards, presented by WTCI-TV 45 March 6 at the Chattanooga Convention Center. The awards honor individuals and businesses that have improved the quality of life in Chattanooga, particularly in the nonprofit community.

Eaton said "Masterpiece" was nowhere near going off the air, but it was "becoming a dusty jewel" that no longer was at the forefront of people's minds, she said.

She did not want to hire a large consulting firm to do market research, so she hired one man and did a lot of the research in-house and relatively quietly.

She did not want to open the discussion up to committees or focus groups, paraphrasing Henry Ford and his belief that if he had asked a focus group to describe what they wanted in a vehicle, they would have asked for a faster horse.

"We looked at it from the stakeholders' point of view first," she said. "A lot of the people who loved it also gave money to their PBS stations because of it. We did not want to lose one viewer.

"We got a lot of information back and confirmed that it was a terrific franchise. You don't get a brand like that in television very often. But people thought of it as hard viewing that you had to commit to."

One of the first things they did was drop "Theatre" from the name because "it was an anchor that was pulling us down."

She also divided the series into three distinct programming schedules (Classic, Mystery and Contemporary), making it more comfortable for viewers.

"It confused people that we might go from Jane Tennison one week and Jane Austen the next week and then Jane Eyre," she said.

New shows also were created such as "Downton Abbey" and "Sherlock." PBS also introduced new hosts.

The changes went into effect in 2008 and have been successful by all accounts. New audiences are tuning in -- "Downton Abbey" claims 13 million viewers -- and people are talking about "Masterpiece" again.

Eaton gives some credit to the advent of digital video recorders and social media.

"Our savior was the DVR," she said.

So, are there lessons that other organizations, like symphonies, can draw from the "Masterpiece" plan?

"That's a good comparison because the music will not change. It should not be done by committee. It should have a one-person sensibility and every detail, like your logo and your name and how it fits on every ad or piece of paper, is a huge thing. You have to make them sync and match. Everything we do matches and is managed up and down and across.

"And you have to have a lot of stamina."