SALEM — One of the most influential people in bringing British drama to American television sat in an armchair with an interviewer at Salem State University Tuesday night, two martinis ready to go between them.
The first question she was asked was a quick one: Did you really make fun of university President John Keenan’s accent when you first met him?
“I only complimented it,” she said, laughing and looking at the event’s host. “Why are you starting out so hostile?”
Rebecca Eaton, producer of wildly successful PBS TV brand Masterpiece for the past 35 years, closed out the 37th year of Salem State University’s speaker series Tuesday night.
Eaton has been a major player in bringing British dramas to American audiences through the PBS Masterpiece series, which she took over in 1985. Credited with putting American eyes on shows like Sherlock and Downton Abbey, Eaton has helped Masterpiece earn 62 Primetime Emmy Awards, 16 Peabody Awards, six Golden Globes and two Academy Award nominations. She was tapped as one of TIME’s 100 most influential people in 2011.
But things could’ve been different, especially in the case of Downton Abbey, the largest success PBS has seen under Eaton’s producership in recent years. Asked how she recognizes excellence, she responded by saying she initially didn’t.
Handed Downton Abbey on a platter, Eaton turned it down — not once, she said, but twice.
“I curate Masterpiece. I choose which ones will be seen on PBS,” Eaton said. “I didn’t turn it down because I didn’t like it. I turned it down because, that year, we were doing the new Upstairs Downstairs. I thought they were very similar.”
But after repeated calls, Eaton learned some of PBS’ biggest competitors — HBO among them — also turned it down. Ultimately PBS signed on... again, not truly seeing its potential before the show exploded in the U.S.
“We came in as its co-producer forever. We thought it was just a one-and-done. We thought it was going to last one season,” Eaton said. “The thing about Downton is it really did put Masterpiece back on the map in terms of the television landscape, and the president of PBS would say it was the rising tide that raised a lot of boats.”
Of course, the TV landscape has changed dramatically since. With that comes added challenges for PBS, according to Eaton.
“The challenge now, of course, is competition from Amazon and Netflix, and Hulu, and Disney, Disney Plus, HBO Go. There’s a lot,” she said, “and the fact that public television has the same amount of money it has always had... in case you haven’t noticed, we haven’t had a (presidential) administration that wanted to triple PBS’ budget.”
But with the sharp increase in TV options, there’s another boom that benefits PBS, according to Eaton.
“There’s more talent being developed. This is a time to be reborn as a really good writer,” she said. “All these giants like Amazon, Netflix, BBC in England, ITV, need product. Now that they have all these platforms, they need to put stuff on.
“The whole bar of writing on television is better now,” she continued, “than it was five years, 10 years, 15 years ago.”
The event was moderated by Jared Bowen, an Emmy Award-winning host and contributor to WGBH both on television and radio, and held at the university’s Sophia Gordon Center on Lafayette Street.
Salem State’s speaker series has run for more than three decades. Since 1982, it has brought names like Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Joan Rivers, Jay Leno and others to Salem State. In 2015, the event featured New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady amid that year’s “Deflategate” scandal, and in 2017 10-time Grammy Award winner John Legend performed in the university’s O’Keefe Complex for a packed audience.
Of course, recent speakers haven’t had martinis ready to go for their interviews. But that’s just a credit to the friendship between Bowen and Eaten.
“When Jared and I were talking about what to do with you tonight, Jared had a pretty good idea,” she explained. “He said, ‘why don’t we do what we usually do — which is what we do at your house: we sit around the house and drink martinis.’”