‘Downton Abbey’ hype may highlight PBS problems

PBS executives are promoting the second season of its imported British costume drama “Downton Abbey,” doing their best not only to attract viewers to the program but also to present “Downton Abbey” as part of a new strategy to attract audiences.

However, critics such as Brian Lowry of Variety have responded by saying that this is more public relations than anything resembling a deliberate plan, “misreading something after the fact, then allowing execs to conflate an unexpected windfall into a ‘strategy.'”

And across the Atlantic, the hype may have backfired. In the UK, where “Downton Abbey” runs on the commercial ITV network, its Christmas show was expected to triumph in the audience ratings. Instead, the program attracted fewer than half of the number of viewers tuned into a competing BBC broadcast.

In the US, “Downton Abbey” highlights another issue – PBS evening programming attracts an affluent audience, and the average age for PBS Sunday night programs is 64. This results in the main sponsor of “Downton Abbey” in the US being a cruise line trying to reach older viewers (“55-plus,” its marketing senior VP told The New York Times) – and trying to reach affluent viewers with enough money to afford expensive cruises.

This raised the question of whether television for the rich should be supported by taxes on everyone, rich and poor. This all but invited responses from such critics as David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute.

“Why are taxpayers paying for it?” Boaz wrote yesterday. “Let me say that I love ‘Downton Abbey’ and would gladly pay $10 a month for a network that broadcast it — if I weren’t already paying for it on April 15th.”

And PBS executives may have spotlighted a more pressing problem. “Downton Abbey” has increased PBS’ Sunday night audience, but it may have little impact on the financial difficulties faced by the network.

Total PBS revenues have fallen from $624 million in 2007 to $571 million in 2010, according to The New York Times, and federal funding to all of public television – PBS, stations, everything – fell more than twice as fast in those three years, from $121 million in 2007 to $97.8 million in 2010. The Times also noted that last year’s Budget Control Act passed by Congress and signed by President Obama strips public television of further funding as of 2013 – the federal budget year starting in less than nine months.

State governments are also cutting back funding, four zeroing out public broadcasting entirely, forcing some stations off the air. Income from corporations, foundations, and individuals are also dropping considerably. KCET in Los Angeles dropped PBS network programming a year ago – and stopped paying PBS’ hefty program fees. General manager Al Jerome said the network “is not even in our rear view mirror.”

Amid such gloomy financial news, PBS seeks to strengthen its business model. But “Downton Abbey” may or may not help as people who contribute during PBS pledge drives are often not those who watch regular PBS programs. That’s why stations don’t run regular PBS programs during pledge drives. (Public radio, by contrast, raises listener contributions during regular programming.). But PBS is hoping for a boost, however indirect.

“There’s nothing better for our future than to have a large audience,” PBS senior vice president John Wilson told The New York Times. “That engagement stimulates financial support.”