WASHINGTON – The global success of “Downton Abbey” is vivid proof that romance and drama are alive and well and thriving on the small screen, its executive producer said last week.
In a telephone interview from London, two days after season four of the post-Edwardian soap opera premiered on U.S. public television, Gareth Neame said he remains surprised at the series’ huge worldwide following.
“Because of the different ways that we can consume media, audiences around the world have much more varied diets,” Neame said, referring to such innovations as mass-produced DVDs, on-demand video and Internet downloads.
“Their palate is more mature, and they are prepared to look at stories — comedies as well as drama — wherever they come from.”
Set in the 1910s and 1920s, “Downton Abbey” dwells on the insular lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants at their grand country house in Yorkshire at a time of momentous change in Britain.
Created and written by Julian Fellowes, it’s made by Carnival Films, the independent production house that Neame founded and still runs after its sale in 2008 to U.S. television giant NBC Universal.
The series has been sold to 250 territories — “that’s about every territory,” Neame said — with ITV, Britain’s main commercial television broadcaster, and PBS in the United States as the core markets.
“It suggests to me that while the world we’re depicting is very specific and very nuanced — very unlike the way anyone lives today — there is a universal aspect to the characters that everyone in the world relates to,” he said.
For a long time, he added, it had been “deeply unfashionable … to do anything about romance on television,” not least in the U.S., where TV programs often come across as attempts to “crowbar sex” into the plot.
“We’ve really seen drama come back to become what I believe to be the dominant genre on television,” Neame said.
“With a few notable exceptions every year in the cinema, drama is alive and well and living on television — and it’s as alive and well as it has ever been.”
“Downton Abbey” was first telecast in 2010 in Britain, and Neame never expected it would pull more than 6 million die-hard fans of English period drama in its home market — let alone a cult-like following stateside.
“I was hopeful that we would have the usual 50-plus, upscale, anglophile American audience,” he said, “but I didn’t know that we would become such a mainstream hit.”
The season premiere on Jan. 5 commercial-free PBS attracted 10.2 million viewers, the biggest audience for any “Downton Abbey” episode in the United States, according to Nielsen ratings data.
In Britain, where it airs Sunday nights in the autumn, Neame said the program typically comes in at around 12 million, representing what he called a “phenomenal” 40 percent audience share.
But Neame is also pleased and surprised it has gone down well in Asia and in European countries such as France, Italy and Spain that have not historically embraced British television drama.
“Why we should be the most popular non-Spanish program in Spain, I don’t know,” he said.
On the future of “Downton Abbey,” Neame said “there is no plan to end the show” after production of the fifth season wraps up later this year.
“It won’t go on forever. No show does … (but) the show will live to an age of somewhere between five and 10 years,” he said.
In London, weekend news reports suggested the end was imminent after Fellowes told The Wall Street Journal that “I don’t know yet if there is a season six,” given that ITV and PBS have yet to sign on the dotted line for additional seasons.
But when time comes to close the door on “Downton Abbey,” it will be a creative decision, not an economic one, Neame said, with no question of stringing out the plot just for the sake of doing so.
“Clearly the show is an economic success, and it’s a great piece of business for us to have as a production company,” he said.
“But to me, the more important thing is to make sure it is well-formed, comes to an end at the right time, and is not lured into the usual thing of trying to keep something going past its time.”