If there's one institution that has endured more twists of fortune than Downton Abbey and its stiff-lipped Crawley family, it's PBS's Masterpiece. As recently as 2011, the program was stuck in a six-year drought without a sponsor, and its financial future was anything but certain.
Fast forward to 2013, and the public-broadcasting world is a very different place. Thanks to the runaway success of Downton Abbey, co-produced by Masterpiece and Britain's Carnival Films, PBS is experiencing an unprecedented surge in Web traffic and cultural buzz, making Masterpiece's new sponsors—Ralph Lauren and Viking River Cruises—among the happier advertisers on either side of the pond.
"We've received an overwhelming amount of enthusiasm from our customers," said David Lauren, global marketing chief for his father's fashion brand. "The partnership has helped us connect with a new audience while also catering to the interests of our existing consumer."
A major factor in the sponsorship success of Masterpiece (also home to Sherlock and Upstairs Downstairs) is the booming popularity of video on PBS.org, where episodes of Downton Abbey season 3 were streamed 2.7 million times in January alone. That's 1.7 million more than all of season 1 combined, according to PBS. Downton Abbey currently makes up nearly half of all streaming content viewed on PBS.org.
While the Web audience is still much smaller than the estimated 8 million viewers who watch each new Downton Abbey episode on television, PBS.org offers some unique perks sponsors won't get on the air. On the site, Ralph Lauren and Viking River Cruises are featured in display ads, a pre-roll clip and even up to two mid-program breaks.
That might seem overly commercial to some longtime public broadcasting fans, but PBS says the increased ad presence totals only 1.5 minutes per hour (compared to 6 minutes on commercial streams of similar length) and is vital to covering the costs of higher site traffic.
"As our reach has skyrocketed through digital content, so have our expenses. The cost of delivering streaming videos has doubled in the last year alone," Jason Seiken, PBS's general manager of digital, tells Adweek.
"In broadcast, costs do not fluctuate depending on the size of your audience, but on Web and mobile platforms, more viewers mean additional costs," he said. "So, we do pay a literal price for our success in the digital arena. This has made it necessary for us to have slightly different practices in digital than what you see on our broadcast service."
How much do sponsors pay for all this visibility? We don't know. A spokesperson for Masterpiece sent Adweek this cryptic summary: "There are a number of factors that go into pricing sponsorship of any public television series, including length of term, deliverables and market conditions." A PBS rep put it more bluntly: "The sponsorship rates aren't publicly disclosed."
The good news for PBS and its increasingly prominent sponsors is that viewers don't seem to mind the ads. The sponsor messages have practically become an in-joke for Downton Abbey fans, who are used to seeing the same two each week.
"Downton Abbey always leaves me with a strange desire to take a river cruise and to wear Ralph Lauren," tweeted one viewer in January. "What I take away most from Downton Abbey," joked another, "is that I really want to go on a Viking river cruise."
Such reactions don't go unnoticed by the sponsors.
"We are extremely pleased by the response we've received to our sponsorship of Masterpiece," said Richard Marnell, svp of marketing for Viking River Cruises, which signed on as a sponsor in July 2011—about a year before Ralph Lauren. Viking signed a two-year renewal in 2012.
"This year is Viking's biggest year yet," Marnell said. "We are introducing 10 new Viking Longships that will sail Europe's waterways this year and 12 next year. And the awareness we continue to generate through our PBS sponsorship of Masterpiece—and Downton Abbey's record ratings—is definitely contributing to our overall success."