PBS Fancies Itself a ‘Premium’ Channel, Thanks to ‘Downton Abbey’

Everyone’s favorite publicly-financed content provider (hint: it’s PBS) was a top earner at both the Emmys and Golden Globes this year, with its early-1900s Brit-drama “Downton Abbey” – part of the network’s “Masterpiece” anthology series – taking top honors in a number of categories.

In the midst of the acclaim, PBS has been outspoken in its efforts to capitalize on the show’s highly deserved yet surprising success. The network’s senior VP and chief programming executive is now urging us to “Think of PBS and the local stations as premium television on the honors system.”

Until just recently, “Masterpiece” viewership reportedly had “an average age of 64,” so naturally, the network wants to bring newer and younger viewers to the fold and recognizes that “Abbey” now represents its best bet at doing so. The show is proving quite a draw for many a savvy viewer, but whether PBS can turn that draw into a successful bid for a larger viewership and is up for debate. Then again, the recently aired premiere of the second season “drew 4.2 million viewers, double the network’s prime-time average,” adding credence to the network’s push for a premium image.

Of course, PBS can tout its “top-tier” status to its heart’s content, but the fact is that marketing such an image could prove costly, and seeing as how the network relies heavily on both public and government funding, it could prove particularly difficult as well.

Fortunately for the network, “Abbey” managed to build up a significant social media following throughout its first season – something the show runners plan to build on as the show continues. The show’s official Twitter account features regular updates and anecdotes “about the daily goings on…from an inside character who addresses fan queries in the language of the era.”

twitter post downton abbey

If “Abbey’s” social media team can continue this type of engagement and keep the fans excited about the show, then PBS might not need to worry about breaking its bank on traditional marketing. Says Lesli Rotenberg, senior vice president of marketing and communications for PBS: “Social media drove the success of ‘Downton’ the first time around. This time we’re using social media to help further drive buzz.”

Plus, it certainly helps that the strength of the show itself is obviously enough to generate a strong following. According to Variety:

Given the admiration the first miniseries won, one suspects this might be the rare PBS production that generates sizable ratings. This is a production that reminds people of the rarefied air PBS can occupy, creating a stately showcase for elegant and (let’s face it) older-skewing material.

As “older-skewing” as it may be, this dark horse period-piece is primed to take Western television audiences by storm as it continues into its second season (and hopefully beyond). If PBS can manage to use its success with the show as a springboard to acquiring a broader, younger audience, then more power to them.

Have you watched “Downton Abbey” on PBS? More importantly, have you watched PBS lately? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Image credit to Highclere Castle, Highclere, Hampshire (Martin John Bishop) / CC BY-SA 2.0
Highclere Castle – the East Front (Mike Searle) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Joseph Giorgi

Joseph is the head of the Media Team at Quality Logo Products. He's a video specialist, blogger, perfectionist, and all-around likeable guy. When he's not busy focusing on the nitty-gritty details of his written and visual work, he's normally listening to bad 80s music and scouring the internet for useless information on useless subjects. You can also connect with Joe on Google+.


  1. amy

    First of all, great post Joe!! I’ve heard of ‘Downton Abbey’ but haven’t actually watched any of it. I haven’t watched PBS since I was in elementary school and ‘Arthur’ was on. After reading this, I may have to catch it next time it’s on.

    Secondly, I keep reading and writing ‘Downton’ as ‘Downtown’ and it’s incredibly annoying and frustrating (sigh).

    Seriously though, great post!

    • Joseph Giorgi


      I kept making the same slip when I first read the word “Downton.” I even thought it was misspelled on the sites where I first read it. Then, after seeing it written that way on several other sites, I finally caught on to the fact that it was written that way intentionally. Highly frustrating indeed.

  2. Alex Brodsky

    The Social Marketing strategy for PBS (more specifically “Downton Abbey”) is going to be important for the station if they want to maintain credibility. As you said, most PBS is paid for by donations. This is where they NEED the younger demographic.

    I feel a viewer close to the average age of 64 would be less likely to donate a significant amount of money for television. Retirement/saving is on their minds, especially in this economy. The 25-34 demographic is the age group with disposable income. Thus, social media is a great way to attract that demo, as a majority of retirees probably do not have a Twitter account.

    Great post, Joe. And I’m going to get around to “Downton Abbey” sometime.

    • Joseph Giorgi

      Great point! That demographic is going to play a key role in keeping PBS’ competitive among the premium networks and top-tier cable networks. The social media team for “Downton Abbey” is doing exactly what it needs to be doing, and in the future, PBS would be wise to ensure that the teams behind its other programs take a similar initiative.

  3. Mandy Kilinskis

    I had heard whisperings of “Downton Abbey,” but it wasn’t until they won a ton of Emmys that I finally took the time to watch it. My mom and I rented the first season and watched the entire 8 hours in one day. Then we waited the painstaking two and a half months for it to come back for the second season.

    And wow, it’s an excellent show. My mom and I have been watching the second series every week. Now someone else in the office needs to watch it so I can have someone to discuss it with! Also, I believe that it has been picked up for a third season. 🙂

    Before Downton Abbey, I was an occasional viewer of PBS. I caught reruns of Doctor Who. The last time that I watched it so frequently was when they did they aired all of the Jane Austen adaptations. That was in 2008? 2009? But it’s definitely been a while.

    • Joseph Giorgi

      I hadn’t even heard of “Abbey” until it swept the Emmys, but its four awards and several nominations definitely caught my attention, so I decided to give it a go. As of now, I’m on Episode 3, and I’m really looking forward to finishing the first miniseries. It’s a pretty authentic show to say the least, which is great for me, since I just finished “The Tudors” and have been looking for another period piece to fill that void. I think the second series of “Abbey” is free to watch at (correct me if I’m wrong though), so I’ll probably continue watching that right after I finish the first on Netflix.

      And don’t worry — once we catch up, Sam and I will definitely discuss the show with you. 🙂

      • Mandy Kilinskis

        I’m not sure if the second season is streaming on PBS or not, but to keep interest high, I wouldn’t be surprised. If not, my local library had it on DVD and that’s where my mom and I found it!

        I can’t wait for the two of you to catch up!

  4. Jill Tooley

    I <3 PBS! Shows like Mr. Rogers are why I’m the person I am today! 🙂

    It makes sense that the channel would yearn for that “premium” status. If every channel was given human personality traits, then PBS would probably be the quiet wallflower who got kicked around for 20 years — and then won the lottery’s jackpot and catapulted into the spotlight. A pro? PBS is finally getting recognized. A con? PBS isn’t used to this popularity and therefore may be more prone to marketing mistakes.

    What I’m trying to say is that they deserve their big break, and Downton Abbey may be just that! If they keep up this social media engagement, then they’re going to be on the fast track in no time…

    Thanks for the info — one more show I have to check out (the list is GROWING!)

    • Joseph Giorgi

      “PBS would probably be the quiet wallflower who got kicked around for 20 years — and then won the lottery’s jackpot and catapulted into the spotlight.”

      Haha. That’s probably an accurate analogy.

      I used to watch a decent amount of PBS growing up, but I’ve ventured more toward more mainstream and/or “premium” content as I’ve gotten older, and I’m sure most of our generation has done the same. I really hope the network has what it takes to provide incentive for younger viewers to come back to the fold. Yes, the social media efforts help, but they’re going to need some other great shows to go along with “Abbey” if they’re going to expand their viewership.

      Maybe they should bring back “Wishbone.” 😉

  5. Jen

    I keep hearing great things about this show. It’s awesome how they have used social media to do some of their marketing. It’s basically free advertising, something PBS can really benefit from. Hopefully the social medial success from this show pushes them to do more for other PBS shows too.

    I have been wanting to watch a few episodes, so I’m going to check it out now for sure!

    Great post Joe!

    • Joseph Giorgi

      It’s definitely worth checking out. As of now, I’m on Episode 3 and I plan to continue watching. It’s very authentic and very engaging — can’t go wrong, really. 🙂

  6. Candice J.

    I’ve never seen this show although I am a fan of PBS. Largely due to the Children’s Shows they Run. (ex. Sid the Science Kid, Super Why, Curious George, etc.) They offer so many ways to stay connected and interactive with the shows that they run on their station that its truly hard not to be a fan. It seems like Downtown Abbey is off to a great start and hopefully it can continue. Great post Joe!

    • Joseph Giorgi

      Oh wow! I can’t believe I forgot about “Curious George”!

      Yeah, it’s hard not to like PBS. It’s easy to see that they’re personally invested in their content and care more about the impact and integrity of their shows than the ratings they draw in, which is definitely admirable. I’d like to see them get the best of both worlds though, so hopefully “Abbey” will continue to help them in that regard.

  7. Jeff Porretto

    Average age of 64?!?!? Damn good they’re trying to attract younger viewers! Is there any other show the average age is even close to being that high for? That boggles the mind.

    While I don’t play on watching Downtown Abbey, I can at least appreciate what they’re going for here. I mean they’re of course a little late to the social media dinner table, but good for them nonetheless.

    • Joseph Giorgi

      I’ve always kind of wondered how PBS has been faring lately, so that viewership statistic was definitely an eye-opener. It’s about time they start taking some initiative in pushing their brand on a broader demographic. Yeah, the marketing team for “Abbey” may be late to social media game, but at least they’re showing a concerted effort. If they can keep it up, it’ll only help PBS — and I’d love to see more ‘premium’ content on that network. Then again, there’s always “NOVA” — can’t go wrong there.

  8. Eric

    Not having cable until I was in the eighth grade (and only then it was basic), I grew up watching PBS. A LOT of PBS. I only wish they’d shows of this thoughtful and of this caliber back then. Mind you, I’m not complaining about programs like Mr. Bean, or “Wild Chicago,” etc etc…but I do think a lot more people enjoy PBS than you’d think. Heck, we’ve quite a few fans of Downton Abbey here at QLP alone. Hopefully it can rope in a few more donors come that time of year. I’ll be one sad panda if ever the day comes that PBS no longer exists.

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