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At WGBH-Boston - Booking Masterpieces

By M. Morgan Baker '80

Rebecca Eaton '69 executive producer of "Masterpiece Theatre" and "Mystery!" for WGBH in Boston, thinks she has the best job in television. "It's the perfect job. It's terrific because the majority of my time is spent reading scripts, screening programs, and talking to the people who make television drama. And all of those things I love."

Ms. Eaton, a reflective and articulate woman, has been executive producer of the two programs—among the most respected, watched, and enduring programs on the Public Broadcasting System's schedule—since 1984. She came to the position after 12 years with WGBH during which she produced many documentaries for PBS and such specials as "What Makes Rabbit Run?" a profile of writer John Updike coproduced with the BBC in 1983. (Another alumna, production manager Pauline Tobey Mercer '42, has been with "Masterpiece" for 13 years.)

Essentially, Ms. Eaton's current responsibilities include choosing the shows WGBH, Boston's PBS affiliate, will purchase or coproduce for "Mystery!" and "Masterpiece," and then packaging them and getting them on the air. Many of the shows seen during the past four years were already in the works when Ms. Eaton was named executive producer. "It's been a little tricky for a couple of years:" she says, "having to ride out some things that weren't mine but that have my name on them, some of which were not my favorites. And there were a couple of things I chose that were mistakes." She mentions "David Copperfield" as being one project in which the script was good, but the final product disappointing. "In this past season, with the exception of a couple of programs, they all represented my choices. I was very pleased with the season." Two series of which she is particularly proud are "A Perfect Spy," an adaptation for "Mystery!" of the contemporary novel by John LeCarre, and, for "Masterpiece" "A Very British Coup." Ms. Eaton says of the latter: "It was a big risk for all of us. It was not only contemporary, it was slightly in the future and had a political theme, none of which we'd ever touched before in "Masterpiece Theatre."

Doing contemporary work, she says, "is a difficult road to go down because there's contemporary material available all over the world and in abundance in the United States. We don't want to do what everybody else is doing."

A future project for "Masterpiece" that she is excited about is an adaptation of Edith Wharton's last and unfinished novel, The Buccaneers, set in both the United States and England. Another, "A Portrait of a Marriage" by Nigel Nicholson, is also in production. Set to air this fall on "Mystery!" is a new series based on books by the British writer Margery Allingham, featuring her character Albert Campion.

In making her selections, which Ms. Eaton calls "the most important part of my job—awesome if I stop to think about it," she considers many factors. There is her audience, which can number from two million to eight million viewers and which, according to surveys, tends to be college-educated, reasonably well-off, female, and over 50. (Ms. Eaton thinks the "Mystery!" audience may be a bit younger and a bit more yuppie.) She considers the social impact a show might have. And, perhaps most subjectively, she considers quality-both the quality traditionally represented by the two programs and her own checklist of standards for script, direction, performance, and production values.

How does she choose the programs to be broadcast under the "Mystery!" or "Masterpiece" label? "A very simple way of saying it is, we do a miniseries if at the end of one episode I want to watch the next. That's a very good sign. If I don't want to watch the next, that's a very bad sign. Is there a strong story line with strong narrative that pulls you along episode to episode, that will keep an audience coming back?"

The majority of the "Mystery!" and "Masterpiece" shows are British, although WGBH and Ms. Eaton are beginning to look elsewhere for good drama, including Canada and Australia.

"The thinking behind the series originally was to show the best of British costume drama to the American audience because the British were making the best drama in the world at that point. The miniseries in this country hadn't been discovered. This was pre-'Roots.' We introduced the idea to the American networks and they then began to take books and adapt them to miniseries." Things have changed, however, in the 20 years "Masterpiece Theatre" has been on the air. A new generation is writing and directing. And while classic novels continue to be adapted for the programs, more contemporary work and original productions are also being developed. "In the old days," Ms. Eaton says, "there were shelves and shelves of already produced British dramas" Her predecessor, she says, would go to London, sit in a dark viewing room, and "go blind" screening show after show.

"Now" she says, "about 50 percent, maybe slightly more, of our shows are acquisitions. The rest are coproductions, which means they wouldn't get made without us. Broadcasters come to us with a script, a treatment, a production team, an idea, a book, any number of forms, and they say, we want to do this and we need you and your money to do it. Will you coproduce it with us? And based on the book, the script, the production team, we decide" Nowadays, more of the executive producer's time is spent reading, and finished shows can be viewed on video in the comfort of home.

Her job of finding good drama has been made more challenging because of the changes being wrought in both British and American television. British television, she explains, is "in a state of turmoil at the moment. They are reexamining the system with plans to revamp it, and they are edgy about what they should produce and provide"

Though she worries that the quality of British television may slip a bit in the future, Ms. Eaton is hopeful that GBH will become more influential as the British become more dependent on the station's money to produce shows. "Our voice will be heard more clearly" she says.

As for the United States: "Television in this country right now is very volatile" she says. "There are so many more choices than ever before and the networks are losing audiences at an alarming rate...'Masterpiece Theatre's' grew last year by 10 percent...There are more choices with cable...And, she adds, 50 percent of American households now have VCRs. There are more program providers than ever before, and the competition for viewers has become tough. "Masterpiece Theatre" she says, "used to be the only place you could see good drama."

"So here we are" she says, "straddling these two rocking boats." It's not just what's happening in the two television industries that has complicated Ms. Eaton's programming decisions; it's also the American public and its television habits. "Because there are so many choices, people tend to graze," she says. They plop down in front of the TV with the channel changer and flick around. "Occasionally they read a review, but most people turn it on and wait until something grabs them, which" she says, "is extremely scary. Because what that makes the programmers and producers do, particularly in American television, is resort to the fast cut, the short take, the sustained intensity, the clever line, anything to grab attention as you go by and to keep you there."

"Part of our mission, or my mission," she continues, "is to resist that, because it's extremely dangerous to compete for an audience's attention span which is getting shorter and shorter all the time." In this context, the slower pacing of British drama can present a problem for an audience looking for the fast take. "I hope I can resist the temptation to do things faster and faster and shorter and shorter," says Ms. Eaton, "because I think that's the road to disaster. There should still be a place where you can go to [find material that] is absorbing and that moves at a pace representative of the content."

"The other thing I hope we can achieve is to continue to present televised versions of good books. That gets harder and harder to do when people are looking for racy, sexy, violent story lines. I would like to be able to resist that and present books that tell stories and represent values that still apply, that have to do with our history and culture."

It is, in fact, Ms. Eaton's love of literature and her background as a producer of documentaries and dramas that brought her to her current position. At Vassar, Ms. Eaton majored in English. Before Vassar, she was regularly taken to the theater by her mother, an actress; every Sunday she went to the movies with her father, who taught classes on Shakespeare at the California Institute of Technology. "They were also terrific readers, and I grew up as a kid pretty much devoted to books. I spent a lot of my childhood reading-reading was a refuge, an escape, a comfort to me as an adolescent, and then as I got more confidence, it became just entertainment and pleasure. Now it has come around full circle. I feel I can endorse values I think important and, in whatever way I can, [encourage] people to read.

"It's sad to me how little people read, and how it's a lost art for a kid to take a trip with a book, or get lost in a book," Ms. Eaton says. Because she feels so strongly about reading, she often worries that through her work in television, she is contributing to reading's demise. "I hope that what we do isn't just the anaesthetic at the end of the day. I always try to choose pieces that are more than that, that are in some ways provocative, moving, or revealing." And she has discovered, much to her delight, that when "Mystery!" or "Masterpiece" runs an adaptation of a book, sales of the book often increase after the show. "I love this job," Ms. Eaton says again. "I feel as though all my other work has been preparation for this. I understand what it is to try and produce something, the difficulty of it. I understand how a producer has to work with a writer, how a director has to work with a producer. I understand that, yet I don't have to do it now. But I find that experience very valuable in deciding what to back" She has chosen all the shows for the current season, and says, "I will have to take the blame or credit for all of them."