By Ken Tucker
Updated July 31, 2011 at 12:00 PM EDT

“A gift from God,” is the way Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton described Downton Abbey, whose sequel will premiere Jan. 8 (ten hours of English country house huggermugger spread over seven weeks). Eaton was addressing TV critics at the Summer TV Press Tour in Los Angeles on Sunday, bubbling with delight that The Series Formerly Known As Masterpiece Theatre had seen a 43% ratings increase in the past year thanks to Downton, Sherlock (three more of those coming up in May 2012), and the updated Upstairs Downstairs (six more episodes will air in 2013).

Jolly good for Eaton, and she was probably right to thank God, because it didn’t seem as though the good luck for Masterpiece had much to do with Masterpiece itself or with PBS in general. In fact, over two days of PBS press conferences covering everyone from Elmo (a documentary about puppeteer Kevin Clash, Being Elmo, looks terrific) to Ken Burns (whose signature amber tinting will never be more apt than when his legwork on liquor, Prohibition, premieres in October), the same dismaying theme recurred: PBS seems to air a few very good shows every year not by design but by happy accident.

Think about it. Downton Abbey, as pure a light pleasure as TV has given us recently, had nothing to do with Masterpiece or PBS, but rather the talents of writer Julian Fellowes, executive producer Gareth Neame, and its marvelous cast. It aired on ITV in England, PBS picked it up as part of its Masterpiece season and then left it to American critics and viewers to tell the network what a little treasure it was in possession of. Honestly, before Downton became a U.S. hit, you wouldn’t have had a clue, given the merely standard promotion PBS gave it, that this was something special. Now, of course, Eaton is crowing that Downton is “the best thing that has happened to Masterpiece in years” and is doubtless fervently hoping that, if God and Fellowes don’t produce a third “gift” in the form of another sequel, perhaps PBS can arrange for a spin-off, Downton Abbey: Special Servants Unit.

I joke, of course. Partly because PBS would never joke about itself. In her opening keynote address to the press, PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger spoke with misplaced pride about the sort of fund-raising programming PBS does, shortly before bringing out a wee bit of definitive proof of how lame that programming is, as The Monkees’ Davy Jones gassed on and on about what was going to make 60s Pop Rock: My Music such a fun time broken up by pledge breaks. While Kerger boasts that PBS’ online audience is “under 35,” let’s face it, PBS is catering primarily to a baby-boomer-and-older audience. Yet Kerger and PBS don’t seem to see this as the gift that it is. PBS has a self-selecting audience, potentially huge in numbers and with more discretionary income to donate than the demo that watches Jersey Shore. PBS has an audience of people sick of having Real Housewives and Hot In Cleveland and Hoarders shoved at them.

“We have a hit!” Eaton proclaimed during the Downton Abbey panel, and pronounced the promo clip shown — which shows the characters in the midst of World War I, some fighting on the front lines, others fighting over who has to clean which ponce’s bedroom — as being “more precious than gold.” Again, happy for Eaton, but why should she be surprised that her series can produce a hit? It should be spawning more of them, rather than waste time alienating viewers with its sad “re-branding” as Masterpiece Classic, Masterpiece Mystery, Masterpiece Contemporary, and, doubtless soon enough, Masterpiece Masterpiece.

Instead of coming up with a mixture of new, clever series and re-broadcasts from its storehouse of great old shows, PBS is hyping staid middlebrow fare such as an Andrea Bocelli concert as the high point of its “Fall Arts Festival.” When a TV critic asked why Kerger doesn’t rebroadcast a marvelous 1971-73 PBS series such as The Great American Dream Machine (an anthology show that offered satire, Albert Brooks, a very sharp Andy Rooney, and the mischievous disruptor-host Marshall Efron), she acknowledged the show’s quality and then called upon a WNET executive to ask about Dream Machine‘s possible return. His answer: PBS would not air complete episodes of the show (of course not: that would be too entertaining!) but instead is producing a “retrospective one-off, like … The Best of Laugh-In.”

Ye gods. Did you see The Best of Laugh-In? Answers: a., of course you didn’t, and b., it was awful: chopped-up, watered-down. And it’s not just the fund-raising programming. Last season, PBS took the history of TV, and chopped it into a thousand little clips and no insight and called it Pioneers of Television. It’s as though PBS is trying to stay away from anything interesting, or challenging. (Let’s hope it fares better with its new show about pioneers of television, American Primetime, but from what I’ve seen so far, it’s more teeny clip after teeny clip with much celebrity gush and little critical context. I hope I’m wrong and that it’s better than that.)

We know at least one reason why all this is. PBS doesn’t want to go back to the days in which it stirred things up, to the days when Bill Moyers and Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied and An American Family provoked audiences, and attracted the censure of politicians grandstanding to take away PBS’ small amount of government funding. Except for Frontline and the occasional Independent Lens and a few of the American Masters each season, PBS has ceded responsibility for aggressive programming dealing with current events or arts coverage with a forceful point of view (for the latter, I point you to Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New).

What should PBS do? I can think of a half-dozen things. But it doesn’t make any difference. As Kerger and PBS made clear over the past couple of days, it is committed to “nostalgia” (the hideous code-word for honoring the past by smothering it with gooey sentimentality). Its children’s programming remains pretty good.

And there’s always Downton Abbey II to look forward to. I am.