PBS's Masterpiece series—home to the deliciously soapy English period drama Downton Abbey—has become as much of a cultural touchstone as, say, HBO or AMC. And much of that has to do with the work of one woman, Rebecca Eaton.
The longtime executive producer of Masterpiece led the rebranding of the series a few years ago, when it was still known as Masterpiece Theater and was in serious financial straits. Among her tweaks: lopping off the musty-sounding “Theater” in the series’ title; aggressively embracing social media; and bringing in younger, well-known hosts, such as Gillian Anderson and Laura Linney. Eaton has also been a key champion of Downton Abbey, though she’s the first to admit that she initially passed on the show. Numerous Golden Globes, Emmys, and critical gush-fests later, Eaton says that Downton, along with its Masterpiece Mystery! sibling Sherlock—the 21st century-ized detective series starring Benedict Cumberbatch—both benefited from Masterpiece’s updated image and contributed to its success. The shows are nominated for a combined 24 Emmy Awards this month.
That Eaton was able to conceive Masterpiece with such a fresh eye is impressive, considering that she’s worked on the series since 1985.
She recently spoke with Fast Company about the science of a hit, the torture and rewards of writing, and how fully devoting yourself to your job can be dangerous to your creativity and to your career.
FAST COMPANY: Your parents both had creative professions. Your father taught English literature at Caltech and your mother was an actress. How did that influence your own creative growth?
REBECCA EATON: I was an Anglophile and a bookworm from when I was really small. I was marinated in literature, movies, theater. They talked about it, it was around the house, it was in the water. I think I just had a natural inclination, particularly toward English things. I just had an affinity. My brother, raised in the same house, also went into television, but it was commercial TV and management. He was a producer of a nighttime show, then he went into management. So the English thing somehow I came to by myself. I was an English major at Vassar.
You went from Vassar to the BBC and then to PBS, which was then a very new company. And you’ve been at Masterpiece—then called Masterpiece Theater—since 1985. How have you kept the job from getting stale?
It does it for me. I can't wait to come to work every day, unless I'm absolutely exhausted. It's on the air 52 weeks a year, more or less, so there's always something going on. And staying fresh has never been a problem. Getting worn out is different.
Last year, you wrote a book about the history of Masterpiece, but it was also your own memoir. Was that project a way for you to grow in your job, in a sense? Or at least exercise different muscles?
They asked me to write it; it wasn’t my idea. Masterpiece turned 40 and it was time, and then there was an advance and a publisher. I must have known I wanted to, otherwise I would have said no I couldn't possibly. But I'm really glad I did.
How did you find the act of writing? It’s so different—and solitary—from what you’re used to doing day to day.
I'd always written pretty easily; I'm an English major. But I found the act of actually trying to communicate a story—and this is nonfiction—really hard to do.
I went through months of procrastination and torture, just not being able to do it. But once I started and found a way in, I could do it. Then I realized I could summon it up if I was disciplined about it—and I was not disciplined about it, making it much harder for myself. But when I was doing it, when it was working, it was practically writing itself. It would come very fast.
I've heard a lot of writers say that, that if you tap into something, whether it's subconscious, whatever it is, creativity, it will—fasten your seatbelt—literally happen faster than you can write. That felt wonderful. It felt terrible trying to figure out how to do it. And it would feel terrible when it didn't work. And it was terrifying after it was done. Would anybody like it? Was it any good? But when you have an idea and you are expressing it, which is what I think creativity is, it's just one of the best feelings in the world.
What led to the massive rebranding of Masterpiece a few years ago? What told you it was time to start rethinking what Masterpiece was and how it was being presented?
It was after our darkest hour. We had lost ExxonMobil as a funder. We used to be on two nights—Mystery! was on Thursday nights, Masterpiece was on Sunday nights. And PBS had merged the two series and put them on Sunday nights. There was less programming coming. Fewer viewers. It was bleak.
We lost a project to HBO—Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth I. It was a wake-up call. And I realized we had to do something. So we did a major research project of how we were perceived, what was wrong, what was right, and what we could do about it with no money. And we did a couple of drastic things. We changed the name. And we organized the programming, different genres, started doing more social media. We didn't change the programs, we just changed the on-air look of them and the marketing of them. And it worked.
Downton Abbey came along, very fortuitously, right on the heels of all that. What can you say about the science of manufacturing a hit? Is there such a thing?
Nobody knows if something's going to be a hit. Let's be honest. I have a pretty good sense of what will work for the Masterpiece audience. I know this audience quite well because I have made a lot of mistakes. I know what they don't like. So I have kind of learned and refined my judgment over the years, because I’ve been doing it for quite a long time.
They do want high-quality writing, acting, production values, directing. They really, really value quality. They really value a good, strong story. And they love love. The love, you know, that engine that has driven so many great stories. Forbidden love, difficult love, mistaken love. And then if you populate it with brilliant, serious actors, character actors, and then young, up-and-coming actors, and you put them in beautiful frocks and a beautiful setting, I think you'll do pretty well.
You initially passed on Downton, because you had another, similar, program in the works. But then you changed your mind. What led to that reversal?
I will fully credit Simon Curtis, who is a director and a producer, with why I changed my mind about Downton. He is shooting a film with Helen Mirren. He made My Week With Marilyn, with Michelle Williams, he directed that. And when he was a TV director, he did Cranford, which we did and loved. And he happens to be married to Elizabeth McGovern (who plays Cora Crawley on Downton Abbey). And he said, “Elizabeth says she thinks this could be really, really good.” I did hear that Elizabeth was going to be in it, and Maggie Smith. And I thought, this is attracting quite a cast and the buzz is good, so then we came in.
You mentioned the exhaustion that comes with doing a job over a long period of time. I assume you mean not just physical exhaustion, but creative exhaustion as well. How have you dealt with that?
I deal with that by reading a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with Masterpiece or TV. I also love documentaries, I love American Experience (on PBS). I love to watch American history. I love independent films, both documentaries and just movies. I travel a lot and when I travel I walk and just explore and let my mind go. I spend a lot of time in London, because I have to, but I spend a lot of time just walking, going to museums, bookstores, poking around. I love to cook and garden.
I also had a family. I got pregnant, got news of my pregnancy with my daughter the same time I got the phone call offering me the job (at Masterpiece). So I had both of them. And I would leave this job completely when I would go home, because I really, really wanted to be a mother, and I loved being with her. I think that's one way it kept me fresh. And she was more important than this job, so I think that freed me up a little bit here, although it was a contribution to the exhaustion. So I think family life, relationships, friendship—not giving 100% to your job.
Wow, not many people would recommend not giving it all to your job. At least not many Americans. That must be the Anglophile in you talking.
I think you can go down a rabbit hole. I think you have to give, I don't know what percentage, but you can get in trouble if you give 100% to your job. Either to your personal life, your health, your other relationships, your creativity. And most jobs will ask for 100%. What I mean about 100%, I mean do it really, really well, but don't overdo it.