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A Passport to More Drama
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There’s good news if you are a fan of period drama like I am.

Carnival Films, the production company that brought you "Downton Abbey," "Poirot"and "Whitechapel" has a new drama called "Jamestown."

It focuses on the story of three women who leave England, after being acquired as wives to English settlers in Jamestown, Va., in the early 17th Century.

It’s a gritty look at the harsh life of the earliest British settlers to America and it is populated with a slew of actors whose names you don’t know but whose faces you will recognize from other period drama produced by British TV companies.

So far so good. 

Maybe you’re thinking that you want to give this show a go, see what it’s about and assess whether it is as binge-worthy as "Downton" was.

Well here’s the not so good news.

It’s only available on the PBS Masterpiece Amazon Channel (subscription of $5.99 a month) or on PBS Passport, a relatively new offering for supporters of public television who have donated to their local station.

Now the two things are different. 

PBS Passport is a member benefit available when you donate a certain amount to your local public television station. Instead of a tote bag or coffee mug, this benefit gives you exclusive access to on-demand viewing of a selection of programming that has appeared on PBS, and that is available for longer than the normal online catchup.

The PBS Masterpiece Amazon Channel is one of many à la carte options like HBO, Showtime or Starz.

I’ve written about Passport before and about the competition that PBS faces for costume dramas with the likes of HBO, Netflix and Hulu now in the same market.

It’s a tough world out there and PBS is no longer the only game in town for period drama. 

But how does acquiring content that is not available for free, at least for a limited time before moving behind what is essentially a paywall, square with the mission of public broadcasting?

I asked PBS Chief Digital & Marketing Officer Ira Rubenstein about "Jamestown."

Image - Jamestown portrait.jpg

“Due to rights issues and cost, and the limited number of time slots we have for drama on broadcast, PBS took the opportunity to acquire JAMESTOWN in a limited fashion. We are pleased to be able to make this series available as a benefit to members of local stations through Passport and to paid subscribers of the PBS Masterpiece Add On Channel.”

I sympathize with Rubenstein that there are only a finite number of hours on over-the-air television and not all of it can be period drama. 

Given PBS’s role as a leader in introducing Americans to high quality drama, any opportunity to introduce more content like this isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it seems a natural adaptation to the times we live in. As Rubenstein points out, “This is not dissimilar to the fact that we occasionally offer DVDs on Shop PBS that have never broadcast on stations, but we feel our members might be interested in.”

I think that comparison to DVDs in the PBS shop is the best analogy. 

I applaud PBS for playing in these spaces. It’s a recognition that the world has changed and despite the fact that PBS is “public” and remains almost wholly free, there are some things worth trying in this new marketplace.

One thing that providing exclusive content on Passport can do is perhaps encourage people to become members of their local station. Supporters have long expected a “gift” in return for their donation, and speaking as the queen of tote bags, I loved the idea of this particular member benefit.

Rubenstein adds: “We see JAMESTOWN as an experiment that will help us determine if providing exclusive content through Passport will help stations in their efforts to increase membership and financial support. We also want to understand what PBS viewers in general feel about offering content only through Passport.”

Image - Scott and Bailey .jpg

Some local stations are also trying some Passport-only content. New York station WNET provided all five seasons of a British police procedural, "Scott & Bailey," last summer and they were pleased with the results.

In an email, WNET Chief Marketing and Engagement Officer Kellie Castruita Specter wrote that this experiment “performed extremely well.”

For PBS, Passport is very much a member benefit, it’s not a pay wall, and WNET is no different. Specter continues, “Passport is a benefit of membership and we are serving our members on all platforms. We don’t see this as contrary to the mission of public media.”

Both "Jamestown"and "Scott & Bailey" represent barely a drop in the ocean of all public television content but I think they represent smart experimentation. In a continuously swirling media market if PBS is not trying new things then it is not standing still, it is moving backwards.

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts about Passport. Please share by emailing this office or sharing your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #PBSPassport, we are @PBSPubEd.

Posted March 29, 2018 at 1:13 p.m.