Masterpiece’s Rebecca Eaton

1_RebeccaEatonMasterpiece on PBS has been delivering some of the U.K.’s best dramas to American viewers every Sunday night since 1971. Rebecca Eaton, the executive producer of Masterpiece, has been with the service for most of its history. She tells TV Drama about filling the gap left by Downton Abbey and spotting compelling scripts and ideas amid the deluge of British drama on the market.

TV DRAMA: Now that Downton Abbey has come to an end, what is next for Masterpiece? What do you have in the pipeline?
EATON: We saw the end of Downton way ahead of time, because our partners at Carnival Films and Julian [Fellowes] were talking about it and knew roughly when it would end. So we began to gear up some other projects a few years ago. Poldark, for instance, with Mammoth Screen, captured a very solid audience, as did Grantchester and Home Fires. They’re all returning, as is Indian Summers. And now we are buying into shows like Victoria, which hopefully will be returning for many, many years. We have cleared the decks, making sure we can do the continuing series (if they’re successful), and trying to bring on a new show at least once a year.

TV DRAMA: What do you look for when assessing new projects?
EATON: It is the unanswerable question! You never know. You can put together the recipe and collect the ingredients, and yet the soufflé can fall flat. I look at the team that presents a project to us; that really opens up the conversation of who is going to be looking after this in terms of an executive producer. By the point at which we come in, there’s usually a script, so clearly what I look for is a plot and the [quality of the] writing. When I say “good writing,” what does that mean? It’s not just good writing—it has to be writing with wit and with heart and with substance. You would think that’s easy to do, but it isn’t! You could have wit and substance but no heart, wit and heart but no substance. So that’s the sacred trinity for me in the writing. If I get a script that has all three, it has a team and the plot moves like a freight train, then I’m comfortable and we can move on to the other things.

The next hurdle is the casting. Whoever is doing the casting must have the sensibility that matches this witty, heartfelt, substantial script. And then you’re setting production values and the rest of it. It can fall down at any point. The television program you make in your mind when you read a script as a co-producer is rarely the finished product. Sometimes [the finished product is] better, often it’s different, and every now and then it’s just not as good. How to pick the winners? Who knows. I do get a very strong feeling when I finally screen the first episode. That’s the point at which you can take a deep breath, or you can have a sinking heart and think, Uh-oh, we need to get this out of the way as soon as possible! [Laughs]

TV DRAMA: How much creative input do you offer your partners as these shows are coming together?
EATON: It varies tremendously. Every project is different. With some we come in very late and we’re technically a co-producer. And there are others where we are in at the first pitch, before there is even a script. At the moment, I’m dealing with projects all across the board. Sometimes we option books and find a British production company and then hire a writer, so we can come in at the point of initiating a project. We don’t do that very often, but we’re doing it currently with a book by Elizabeth Gilbert called The Signature of All Things. We can come in at the very end after screening the final cut of something. When we come in very early, we’re involved often in the choice of a writer, the cast and the director. Of course, our partners have the final decision on that because of the relative amount of money that we put in and what the [commissioning] broadcaster puts in. I give notes on drafts of the script, go to the set and begin to screen the cuts as they arrive. Sometimes we get dailies. We tend to do that less and less [during production]—maybe just the first week to see if we’re all on the same page. And then we work closely with our partners in terms of how to publicize the show.

TV DRAMA: With so many American channels and platforms now in the market for British drama, it is harder for you to access the projects you want?
EATON: People understand that we have a very solid audience who will watch anything we put on at 9 o’clock on Sunday night. At least 5 million people will be there. That number can go up to 15 million people, as was the case with Downton. We have a reputation as being a good, respectful partner, not an invasive and intrusive partner. I really believe that these projects are made by some of the best producers in the world. The best thing to do is leave them to it. Money talks, and if there is a project that HBO—which has very deep pockets—wants, or somebody with a lot of money goes after a project, we can’t compete. But there is enough to go around at this point. We do 50 new hours of British drama a year. And we’re nearly full up for 2016.

TV DRAMA: Is the sheer volume of scripted coming out of the U.K. at present overwhelming?
EATON: Yes, it is. My eyeballs are spinning freely in my head from reading scripts! I used to have a development person who would read all the scripts. Then there got to be so few that we didn’t hire her anymore; there was nothing coming in. Now I think I probably have ten on my queue at all times. And they’re not scripts you can read and say, this is ridiculous. They’re all serious possibilities. They’re very different. We’re still doing the period adaptations. We’re now doing some contemporary material. There are a lot of new writers whose work I don’t know. So they are all worthy of careful time and attention. I love it! That is one of my favorite parts of this job—I love reading scripts and making the project in my head. People think you can read a script and it’s easy. It’s not. Even as you read you are casting it, doing the [set] design, shooting it, editing it. So it is quite overwhelming, and that’s a good thing.

Who knows what will happen in a year or two. There are so many changes at the BBC, so many changes at ITV, so many changes in technology and in the business models. It is a very unstable time in international television. A lot of this drama is very high end. The people who are writing, acting and directing are really good. That benefits the audience tremendously. It’s a fact that Masterpiece has prided itself on first-rate British dramas. Will there come a time when there just aren’t enough hours in a day and enough eyeballs to support all this drama? Most people don’t spend 24 hours a day watching television. There is a limited amount of time you can spend watching tele­vision. What will be the fate of all this product? How will the audience, even with time shifting, be able to manage it? I don’t know. It does seem a little unsustainable to me, and I speak from a focus group of one, myself, just trying to keep up with the [shows] I want to watch. And something’s gotta give, as the old saying goes. With all this drama, I don’t know how anybody can keep up in the numbers we need them to keep up.