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PBS chief talks 2016 end of 'Downton Abbey' and a Rose Parade float

PBS chief talks 2016 end of 'Downton Abbey' and a Rose Parade float
A few members of the extended Crawley clan in Season 5 of "Downton Abbey." (Nick Briggs / Carnival Films)

PBS is really going to miss "Downton Abbey." So much so that the public broadcaster is going to give the British costume drama a stylish sendoff early next year with a Rose Parade float.

"No, I won't be on it," PBS President and Chief Executive Paula Kerger cracked to reporters covering the TV press tour in Beverly Hills on Saturday morning. TV viewers will see the float pass by just two days before the Jan. 3 premiere in the U.S. of "Downton's" sixth and final season.

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"It's a float. It will have a lot of flowers on it," she said after a reporter pressed for details of the Rose Parade plans. "It will be a 'Downton Abbey' theme ... just a beautiful sendoff to the series. Sometimes in public television we are accused of not having a sense of humor or fun or whimsy and this kind of captures all of those."

Of course, it would take much more than a float to capture how important "Downton" has been to the network over the past few years. The saga of the aristocratic Crawley family and its travails in the early 20th century has been the most-watched series in PBS history. The Season 5 premiere in January drew 10.1 million same-day total viewers, according to Nielsen. These days that's a hit drama by any yardstick -- and a stupendous number for PBS, whose prime-time programs typically draw a fraction of that.

Kerger said "Downton" had helped PBS raise funds for other programming and promote its lineup to viewers who may have drifted away from the home of "Sesame Street" and "Charlie Rose."

"It brought a lot of people back to public television and we have really tried to take advantage of that," Kerger said.

"It really is something that has given an entire lift" to the network, she added. "I think for our stations, it really was powerful ... getting all of us to believe that it really is possible to have these breakout successes again."

Unfortunately, PBS does not own the copyright to "Downton," which is produced by Britain's ITV, and therefore cannot count on years of income from syndication and streaming sales. So that means programmers are on the hunt for new dramas that could take its place.

"I do not believe that 'Downton' will be the last great drama" for PBS, Kerger said. "I think there are more out there."

PBS imports many of its programs from the BBC and ITV, and its own track record in producing homegrown original scripted programming is decidedly mixed. But it is pinning high hopes on "Mercy Street," a historical drama about a private home that was turned into a military hospital during the Civil War. PBS raised the funds for the series, which is set to premiere in winter 2016. The network will try to use "Downton" to help promote "Mercy Street."

"Our content team is interested in telling American stories," Kerger said.

Meanwhile, Kerger was noncommittal on the future of the series "Finding Your Roots." The celebrity genealogy show landed in hot water after leaked emails revealed that producers had omitted references to a slave-holding ancestor of Ben Affleck after an appeal by the movie star. Affleck later apologized, as did -- following an internal review -- the series' host, Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr.

Kerger said the incident led PBS to conclude that the production team required "additional oversight," including the hiring of a genealogist to verify claims made on the show.

"We have not announced a new season yet," she said. "We hope to bring it back. That's our plan."

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Twitter: @scottcollinsLAT

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