There are plenty of twists surrounding the breakout PBS series “Downton Abbey.” Among them: how NBCUniversal finds itself benefiting.
In 2008, looking to move further into international production, NBCU purchased Carnival Films, the U.K. studio behind the show. Carnival had a distinguished record, but NBCU had barely a clue how valuable “Downton” would become. The series was only in development back then.
“A bit of it is a for instance,” said Carnival managing director Gareth Neame.
Before gaining popularity in America, the Edwardian-era drama had become something of a phenomenon in Britain, where it airs on ad-supported ITV and delivers upwards of 10 million viewers. That's an NFL-type number in the U.K., where the population is just over 60 million.
ITV is a general-entertainment network with a vastly different environment than PBS and the public broadcaster's "Masterpiece" franchise, where "Downton" sits. On ITV, “Downton” follows Simon Cowell’s “The X Factor” on Sundays.
The singing competition has given it a strong lead-in and helped bring a younger audience to the series, which comes from "Gosford Park" writer Julian Fellowes.
“I think that we appeal to and have attracted many, many more people than would watch a conventional costume drama,” said Neame, a former BBC executive.
“Downton” debuted on ITV in 2010. Season two ended in November. A Christmas eve special delivered a huge 11.6 million viewers in the U.K., after DVR-aided viewing was added in.
Both successful seasons of the Emmy-winning show have come to PBS following their British runs. Season two debuted Sunday with 4.2 million-plus viewers, doubling the average PBS prime-time rating.
As production on a third season begins, NBCU isn’t just profiting from the ITV or PBS success. NBCU International Television Distribution holds rights to sell it around the world and has reportedly landed deals in some 200 territories.
The series has done well in Australia, but also in Spain. Neame said the dubbing for main character Matthew Crawley comes from the Spaniard who offers the voiceover for Tom Cruise when his movies play there.
Netflix could also provide a major revenue source for NBCU as episodes pile up. The first season is available for streaming in the U.S. and Netflix launched in the U.K. this week.
Carnival’s Neame suggested to the British Telegraph that the “Downton” franchise could be worth tens of millions of dollars (NBCU reportedly paid about $45 million for Carnival).
“Downton’s” achievements have shined a bright light on Carnival’s potential at NBCU in delivering hits for the company’s U.S. properties.
“It’s really opened a lot of doors for us,” Neame said.
(Carnival’s “The Philanthropist” aired on NBC in the summer of 2009, but was cancelled.)
“Downton’s” PBS success begs the questions whether the show could draw higher ratings on a major cable network or even NBC, which could use help. There are some compelling comparisons, such as Sunday’s PBS debut drawing more viewers than the season averages for NBC’s “Parks & Recreation,” “Rock Center with Brian Williams” and “Chuck.” The Sunday broadcast also topped ABC’s “Pan Am.”
But those side-by-sides are in total viewers. NBC and ABC pitch advertisers on the 18-to-49 demographic. PBS didn’t offer any numbers for the demo, but the show surely draws a huge portion of its audience from viewers ages 50-plus. (A lot of them are probably affluent, though.)
But there aren’t many shows with wide appeal in the U.S., where the majority of actors speak with British accents.
Still, Carnival’s Neame -- who said he thought “Downton” would do only “moderately” well on PBS -- suggested it appears the show could find a significant audience on cable. Certainly, HBO or Showtime (“The Tudors” worked) would be happy with the numbers. While viewership is considerably higher than the acclaimed “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men" on AMC, which might appreciate the upscale appeal.
There is one fun link to HBO. In Britain earlier this year, the high-profile Comic Relief event ran a well-received spoof of “Downton” with “Sex and the City's” Kim Cattrall as a star.