The Next Downton Abbey?

People wonder what will be the next monster hit. They shouldn't.
February 04, 2016
Cast of Downton Abbey

My Google search of the phrase “the next Downton Abbey” turned up articles with headlines such as “Could Indian Summers Be the Next Downton Abbey?” and “Could Mercy Street Be the Next Downton Abbey?” Decider.com made up its mind, with a list of five reasons “Why Poldark Is Going to Be the New Downton Abbey.”

I'll make a bolder prediction: there isn’t going to be a "next Downton Abbey." That’s not to say that there won’t be popular, high-quality period dramas, rather that Downton is a once-in-a-generation phenomenon.

Downton Abbey isn’t just a hit for PBS, it's the highest-rated drama series in our history. And it's here at a time when audiences are fragmented across hundreds of cable channels and streaming services, when the monster hits of commercial TV receive ratings that would have earned them quick cancellation 20 years ago.

Consider that the most-watched network comedy right now is The Big Bang Theory, which averaged slightly more than 19 million viewers in its most recent season. Back in 1989, the pilot episode of Seinfeld debuted to a lukewarm reception of 19.25 million. By the end of its run, it averaged more than 32 million, not counting the monster 76 million who tuned in for the finale.

I bring up Seinfeld not just to demonstrate how we've redefined success over the past quarter-century, but also to comment on a meme that persisted years after it left the air: “the Seinfeld Curse.”

This alleged curse manifested as the perceived inability of the show’s supporting cast (Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Michael Richards) to follow-up with another hit show. Watching Ellie, Bob Patterson and The Michael Richards Show were seen as a forboding pattern of doom rather than evidence that most TV shows fail. (Louis-Dreyfus was eventually said to have broken the curse with The New Adventures of Old Christine and Veep, but the former peaked at 12.5 million viewers and the latter--on premium cable channel HBO--attracts about one million.)

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that shows with enormous cultural impact are so rare that to speculate about the next one is to almost certainly be wrong. The year that Downton premiered on PBS, we put our marketing muscle behind the reboot of a previous powerhouse British drama, Upstairs Downstairs. Guess how that turned out?

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