Masterpiece Theatre

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1971

In 1967, a 26-part BBC adaptation of “The Forsyte Saga,” John Galsworthy’s book series following an upper-middle-class British family, premiered on American television. Stanford Calderwood, president of the Boston PBS station WGBH, loved the idea of regularly putting classic dramas on TV, and asked the BBC about a deal to allow his station to play more such British-produced shows. Talks went on, but money, as it so often is, was the problem. Calderwood explored several ideas for the show’s format and funding, and eventually found himself standing before Herb Schmertz of Mobil (later ExxonMobil).

Schmertz, a savvy intellectual, handled Mobil’s corporate gifts. Calderwood asked him if he had seen “The Forsyte Saga” and Schmertz said he had loved it. Calderwood asked if Mobil would consider funding similar BBC programming via a modest investment of $375,000. Schmertz was interested enough to find out what Calderwood was talking about, and eventually able to get the go-ahead from Mobil’s chairman.

In 1971, Masterpiece Theatre aired its first show (“The First Churchills”). Over the years, the series presented many beloved programs, bringing works of classic and recent literature to U.S. television—many of them unknown to American popular audiences. Notables included “Jeeves and Wooster,” “Upstairs/Downstairs,” “Wives and Daughters,” “I, Claudius,” and “Downton Abbey.” Over a 32-year period, Mobil/ExxonMobil would give $250 million in support of Masterpiece Theatre, ending its sponsorship in 2004. The series was supported by PBS viewer donors until 2011, when Franklin Templeton Investments became the next of several corporations to become sponsors.