Masterpiece Theatre has become synonymous with high quality television since it began showcasing literary adaptations and biography on PBS (Public Broadcasting Station) on January 10, 1971. Masterpiece Theatre has imported British television serials from the outset, more often than not based on British novels that unfold against an English backdrop. For twenty-two years, the show was hosted by Englishman Alistair Cooke on a set recalling a posh London club. Cooke's refined Oxbridge accent and the series's upscale British fare have been lovingly parodied by Sesame Street ("Monsterpiece Thea-tre" with Alistair Cookie Monster) and Saturday Night Live (Dan Aykroyd as snobbish host, Leonard Pinth-Garnell).
Masterpiece Theatre was the brainchild of Boston's public television station, WGBH. It was inspired by the success of The Forsythe Saga, a twenty-six episode British television adaptation of John Galsworthy's Edwardian novels shown on PBS in 1969. It was then made possible by financial support from the Mobil Corporation. The first season established the literary emphasis of the show, with serials based on Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, Honoré de Balzac's Pére Goriot, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Possessed. The first season likewise presaged the show's Anglophile aspect via such serials as The First Churchills, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and Elizabeth R. All of the serials aired during the first season were produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
In its original conception, Masterpiece Theatre was not meant to be a U.S. clearinghouse for British television. Christopher Sarson, the first executive producer, planned for a transition after three years. "The huge disappointment to me is that it didn't turn to American serial dramas," he stated in O'Flaherty's twenty-fifth anniversary volume. Lack of finances, however, engendered a reliance on British imports and consequently exposed U.S. audiences to programming unlike typical network products. Only in 1998—over two decades behind schedule—did PBS announce plans to produce original U.S. content beginning in 1999, complementing its recycled British products under the banner of Mobil Masterpiece Theatre's American Collection.
Masterpiece Theatre has consistently attracted older, college-educated viewers and is vaunted by critics as prestigious, quality television. Sales for books adapted on Masterpiece Theatre inevitably swell, and the show has scored notable successes. Sixty-eight episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs were broadcast between 1974 and 1977, regularly attracting 12 percent of audiences. The chronicles of the Bellamy family and their servants throughout the Edwardian era ensured the long-term existence of Masterpiece Theatre. I, Claudius, a 13-episode saga depicting the lives of four Roman emperors, subsequently riveted large audiences during 1977 and was recognized as a television classic. In 1984 and 1985, the 14 episodes of The Jewel in the Crown transported a mass viewership back to colonial India with a hefty budget adapting Paul Scott's tetralogy, The Raj Quartet.
While continuing to supply a stream of handsome, heritage literary adaptations, Masterpiece Theatre has evolved since 1985 under the guidance of Rebecca Eaton as executive producer. Nearly one-half of the programming is set in contemporary settings, be it the international world of drug cartels in Traffik (1990) or the political landscape of fictional British Prime Minister, Francis Urquhart, in House of Cards (1991), To Play the King (1994), and The Final Cut (1996). Even so, Masterpiece Theatre remains a bulwark of quality television that attracts both discerning viewers and critical acclaim.
Cooke, Alistair. Masterpieces: A Decade of Masterpiece Theatre. New York, Knopf, 1981.
Jarvik, Laurence A. Masterpiece Theatre and the Politics of Quality. Lanham, Maryland, Scarecrow Press, 1998.
O'Flaherty, Terrence. Masterpiece Theatre: A Celebration of 25 Years of Outstanding Television. San Francisco, KQEDBooks, 1996.
Shteir, Rachel. "What Makes a Masterpiece?" Civilization. August/September, 1997, 46-51.