The ratings are in for the last episode of Downton Abbey, and PBS has got to be thrilled—5.4 million people tuned in to see Matthew Crawley and Lady Mary finally get engaged. Those are numbers that in some slots, NBC would die to have. And as the Daily Beast reported last week, the show hasn’t just drawn good numbers: it’s helped PBS pull in new donations. But Downton Abbey‘s only one show, and the last time the network pulled numbers like this was for Ken Burns’ series on the America’s national parks. That doesn’t exactly provide a clear guide to what PBS might build its brand into.
I suggested in January, and I still believe, that PBS could rebuild by airing a lot of British content that isn’t widely available over here. Hulu’s been able to make some inroads by airing Misfits, Party Animals, and The Only Way Is Essex, the kind of show that one would think would land on BBC America but didn’t. PBS could go the same route, but the shorter runs of British shows means they’d have to come up with a ton of material to fill the schedule. And not all of the options for promising British shows, be it Luther or Misfits, share what I think is a crucial attribute of Downton Abbey: it’s very family friendly. Certainly we know that Lady Mary had sex, and people suffer grievous war wounds, but there’s a world of difference between Mr. Pamuk’s death and the sex scenes in Misfits, or seeing bandaged fake Patrick and seeing the victims in Luther. Your mileage may vary, but I think you could watch Downton Abbey with a sophisticated 10-year-old, give or take a few years, and I think it’s a good thing to have shows available that a family can watch across the generations.
And finding that sort of programming is hard. I think what Ken Burns does is noble, but he can’t turn out these documentaries very quickly, and I don’t know that there’s an audience for more of them. ABC Family’s shows may be accessible to a wide age range of viewers, but I’m not sure they’re really intended to draw in adults. Finding something that’s genuinely appealing in a cross-generational way, rather than simply broadly age-appropriate, is tremendously difficult, and it’s not a code I’m sure anyone’s consistently cracked. I’d really like to see some creative experimentation with age-appropriateness as a starting constraint rather than an end goal. There are stories where sex, drugs salty language, and all the other things parents might want to wait to expose their kids to are essential. But that’s not true for every human story.