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The Ombudsman Column

The Daily Downton

This brief column doesn't have much to do with editorial matters, but the subject is breaking news that is just too good not to share. The British press, not so good at some things but very good at other stuff, has caught the venerable Public Broadcasting Service with its hand, so to speak, in the jewelry box.

PBS, and millions of American viewers, have gone gaga over Downton Abbey, the British period drama set in the years leading up to and in to World War I, and now in its second smash season in this country as part of PBS's Masterpiece Classic. The weekly series is a huge artistic and popular success, more than doubling the number of viewers who normally watch the public broadcaster.

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Aside from the tube, Downton Abbey dominates the PBS website, pbs.org, every day, and the press clippings about public broadcasting that are accumulated and distributed internally at PBS daily are also dominated by articles about Downton. I've come to label that The Daily Downton.

Early this month, the New York Times reported on how PBS now "faces the challenge of translating the buzz and enthusiasm for the show into donations to local stations and public financing" and into a broader viewership and programming strategy.

The Mail Arrives

Then yesterday, Britain's irreverent Mail Online, as in the Daily Mail, carried a story headlined: "Downton Shabby: Unofficial collection of jewellry unveiled by U.S. TV network."

Here's some of what the Mail reported on Jan. 23:

"With its memories of a bygone age and class, Downton Abbey has proven to be as big a hit in America as in Britain. But despite being showered with awards across the Atlantic, producers of the ITV period drama are less than happy after an American TV network launched a collection of somewhat tasteless themed jewellery.

"Producers Carnival were forced to call in lawyers to stop the Public Broadcasting Service, the US network that airs Downton Abbey, from naming jewellery after the show's most famous character, Lady Mary Crawley.

"PBS has launched the Downton Abbey collection for viewers who are keen to copy the style of Lady Mary and her sisters. The 'Lady Mary knotted pearl necklace and earring set', available for £102 ($159.99), was doing a roaring trade until Downton producers complained. The PBS Downton merchandise website described the item as 'the epitome of elegance, inspired by the character of Lady Mary Crawley, this luxuriously long pearl necklace and matching diamante earring set is a must have for all ladies of quality.' The sales pitch added: 'As it was in the Edwardian era, this stunning pearl necklace could easily move from your afternoon tea to evening dinner.'

"However," the Mail Online reported, "none of the profits from the Downton Abbey Collection were returned to the writer and creator Julian Fellowes or Carnival Films, the UK producers of the series, which own the copyright to the series. Carnival, which has approved an official range of Downton DVDs and books, was horrified to find that PBS, its broadcast partner, was cashing in on the show's popularity. A spokesman for Carnival said: 'We did not authorise the sale of Lady Mary jewellery. Our lawyers have been in contact with PBS in order to remove these items from sale.'"

In its initial Jan. 23 posting, the Mail Online also reported, "PBS is continuing to sell the jewellery as part of its Downton Abbey collection, but has now agreed to remove direct references to Lady Mary and other characters from the show — and all mentions of Downton characters have now been deleted from the website."

But the Plot Thins as PBS Responds

When asked to comment on this matter today, PBS officials said: "ShopPBS obtained jewelry from a number of third-party vendors and placed them within a collection of products dedicated to 'Downton Abbey.' An email from the business affairs office of NBC/Carnival was received requesting that we remove these items. PBS complied immediately and the products are no longer being offered."

Here's what the Jewelry & Accessories page on the ShopPBS site looked like earlier today, with nothing listed:

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The comments about the story posted by Mail Online make lively reading, as might be expected. But it was a comment signed by a guy named "Dave" from Chicago that made a better defense of PBS in this matter than PBS did, which is also not unusual, and a good journalistic observation as well.

'Dave' Responds:

"I'm not sure why there's no mention [in the Mail Online story] of PBS being a public television network that does not receive any revenue from advertisements and receives less and less from government grants, with each passing year. To stay on the air, they rely on fundraising, telethons, and gimmicks such as these. I'm not saying this excuses them from attaching the names of characters they don't own to these products, just that PBS has to get creative in order to stay afloat. This is not some giant, profit-driven media corporation; this is the Public Broadcasting System — the same one that airs Nova and Sesame Street. I'd think that this information would be worth a mention, as it seems pertinent to the article."