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Knickers in a twist

'Masterpiece Theatre' is being -- egad -- re-branded to appeal to a younger crowd.

January 11, 2008|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

Sunday, 9 p.m. and time for "Masterpiece . . . . " Hold on. Where's the triumphal fanfare? Where's the snorkler's eye view of the library, the books and the statues? Where's Alistair Cooke in a Chippendale chair? Russell Baker in a tweedy jacket?

As of this Sunday, "Masterpiece Theatre" will arrive in, as marketers like to say, a totally new package. Instead of the familiar journalists who hosted the dramas for 33 of the series' 37 years, viewers will see russet-haired actress Gillian Anderson ("Bleak House," "The X-Files") posed against a crimson, minimalist background. There will be new theme music. Pages of a stylized graphic book will flip by.

And there's more. As part of a relaunching of the venerated novel-based series, PBS will expand and divide the "Masterpiece" brand into three mini-seasons: "Masterpiece Classic" will air from January to May, followed by "Masterpiece Mystery!" in the summer and "Masterpiece Contemporary" in the fall. Previews and fan pages will appear online on sites like YouTube, Facebook and iTunes.

Leading off "Masterpiece Classic" on Sunday will be a Jane Austen series featuring all six of her novels, plus PBS' biopic, "Miss Austen Regrets." Four of the productions will be newly televised versions.

Already an unlikely survivor in a world of lower-brow cable and network shows, "Masterpiece Theatre" needed the remodel to attract a larger and younger audience, executives said. If that works, they hope a corporate sponsor might be persuaded to replace ExxonMobil, which dropped out in 2004.

Loyalists, however, are bound to worry that changes may affect their favorite programming, in which ghastly murders are solved over cocktails in the library, snobs and silly pastors make fools of themselves and lovers in multiple layers of clothing gallop around the English countryside visiting each other's mansions. Because its most die-hard fans are also contributors, the series, more than others that try re-branding, cannot afford to alienate its old friends.

The only way to alter such an iconic series is "very carefully," said John Boland, chief content officer for the Public Broadcasting Service.

It had been obvious that "Masterpiece Theatre" needed to rethink its image in light of revolutionary changes in television and media, said Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of "Masterpiece Theatre" for the last 22 years. Studies had shown that viewers identified the series with PBS, admired its high quality and consistently drew a respectable 1.8 to 2 average household Nielsen rating. The series was beloved by an ardent fan base -- as evidenced by numerous parodies, including "Mouseterpiece Theater," "Rastapiece Theater" and "Master P's Theater." It was the most cited reason why people became members of their local public television stations and, most significant, the reason they stayed. But lately some viewers have become confused by shifting time slots and mixed expectations.

"What we wanted to know was why aren't more people watching it and what would it take to attract a younger audience?" said Bob Knapp, president of Neubrand, a marketing and brand consultant. Viewers had told researchers they perceived the series as a "dusty jewel that was hard to find in the PBS crown," Eaton said. They wanted to know whether to expect "Jane Eyre" or Jane Tennison, "Bleak House" or "White Teeth"?

The result was a compromise between changing everything or changing nothing, Knapp said, the literary equivalent of "brand new look, same great taste."

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Faithful Anglophiles

However, one informed observer suggested that PBS, by trading off the halo effect of the "Masterpiece" name may actually cheapen the brand by diluting it like Cherry Coke and Vanilla Coke. Laurence Jarvik, author of "Masterpiece Theatre and the Politics of Quality," said that under the original Mobil Oil sponsorship, the series preserved its brand integrity because its executives were driven as much or more by personal passion than market research. "What was good about it is that you knew what you were getting: A slice of British costume drama," he said.

"The most reassuring thing I can say is the programming will not change," Eaton promised. "We're not going off the rails here."

One issue was how to dispel viewers' perceptions that they needed to clear the decks for 13 weeks if they wanted to see a miniseries, or that they needed a college degree to understand the programming, Eaton said. "These are not difficult plots," she said. "These are great stories about love and lust and greed and betrayal and real estate and clothes and redemption and family."

Despite the rise of BBC America on cable, PBS has little competition for its British costume dramas since A&E has turned to reality. "Masterpiece Theatre" has experimented with Canadian or American projects, such as "The Scarlet Letter," but always returns to English fare.

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