PBS teams with Ridley Scott for Civil War hospital drama

PBS, Ridley Scott team on Civil War hospital drama

Hoping to find its next "Downton Abbey," PBS is reaching back to one of its favorite epochs: the Civil War.

The public broadcaster revealed Monday that it has ordered an untitled historical drama from executive producer Ridley Scott, the "Gladiator" director whose production company was also behind the 2011 History documentary "Gettysburg."

The story is based on the real lives of two volunteer nurses, Mary Phinney and Emma Green, who found themselves on opposite sides of the Civil War while at Mansion House, a Union Army hospital in Virginia.

PBS has ordered six episodes of the show but hopes it will grow into a multi-season franchise, according to network president and chief executive Paula Kerger. The premiere is set for winter 2016.

"We are not looking to do drama just for drama's sake," Kerger said at the TV press tour in Pasadena. "We are looking to do drama that’s different than what everyone else is doing."

The announcement signals a major shift for PBS, which is far better known for importing scripted fare from Britain than for originating dramatic series stateside.

Exhibit A is "Downton Abbey," the British drawing-room drama that has become the most-watched series in PBS history. The season 5 premiere this month drew 10.1 million total viewers, roughly in line with the year-ago ratings, according to Nielsen. The show is produced by Britain’s ITV and airs in the U.S. months after its U.K. telecast.

That Anglophilic import formula has become a PBS trademark. Another of the network’s hits, "Sherlock" with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, is produced by and originally airs on the BBC.

Since the Latino-themed drama "American Family" wrapped its run in 2004, PBS has largely avoided original scripted production. But the success of "Downton," combined with a renaissance for scripted fare on cable networks and, more recently, online providers such as Amazon and Netflix, have persuaded executives to try again.

"We have not done an American drama in a while, probably 10 years," Kerger said. But "we are obviously in an era of great scripted drama … We feel that there’s a unique role in telling a story that’s based on historical fact."

The period in question is a natural fit for PBS. Filmmaker Ken Burns’ documentary "The Civil War" in 1990 drew an estimated audience of 40 million viewers, making it the most-watched program in PBS history. (Burns, as it happened, was present at PBS' Monday event to promote his latest documentary project, "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies.")

"The Civil War … is something that is of great interest to us," Kerger said.

Because PBS is a nonprofit entity supported by corporate and viewer gifts as well as government grants, a new drama is not quite the same roll of the dice as it would be for a commercial network.

Funding for the series is already underwritten by the Anne Ray Charitable Trust and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation as well as the Virginia Film Board (the series will start shooting this spring near Richmond).

Meanwhile, PBS will enhance its production of nonfiction programming under a major new partnership with the BBC. The broadcasters will team to create up to 20 programming hours per year, some of which will air as part of long-running PBS series such as "Nature" and "Nova."

Given that PBS is already a major importer of BBC scripted fare, the deal represents “the perfect foundation on which to extend this partnership” into nonfiction fare, BBC executive Matt Forde wrote in a statement.

As for "Downton," Kerger said the network had no plans to alter its typical scheduling strategy for the hit series. Many fans have repeatedly complained that running the episodes weeks after they have aired in Britain leads to spoilers galore online. But season 6 will return to PBS as usual in January next year.

"After the holidays, when everyone is depressed and it’s cold and dark … we are happy to be bringing the Crawley family back," Kerger said. 

Twitter: @scottcollinsLAT

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