Why ‘Mercy Street’ Could Be the New ‘Downton Abbey’

PBS hopes Civil War drama will help fill void left by U.K. import’s pending departure

Premiering a new series after an episode of a massive hit is a scheduling tactic older than most television networks. PBS will have the rare chance to employ it on Sunday night when freshman drama “Mercy Street” debuts at 10 p.m. after “Downton Abbey.”

“Mercy Street” is PBS’ first original American-made drama in more than a decade, and it arrives at a critical time. With the final season of “Downton” having kicked off earlier this month, PBS is set to lose the most watched show in its history — one that brought new viewers and new underwriters to the public broadcaster. “Mercy Street” is being positioned to fill part of that void.

“The biggest audience we’ve seen in years will lead right into a big play,” Beth Hoppe, chief programming executive for PBS, told TheWrap. “That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m hoping to bring those 9.9 million viewers we had [for the “Downton Abbey” season premiere] across that break and into Mercy Street.”

That task won’t be easy. “Downton” draws ratings that aren’t just rare for PBS. The Season 6 premiere’s 9.9 million total viewers in Nielsen live-plus same day numbers puts “Downton” on par with series such as NBC’s “The Voice” and CBS’ “Madam Secretary,” and just slightly behind Fox’s “Empire.”

PBS has no illusions about replicating those numbers. But “Mercy Street” — an ensemble drama set in a Civil War hospital — is tailored to capture a portion of the “Downton” audience while also drawing non-“Downton” fans.

“We need to and want to appeal to at least a big segment of the ‘Downton’ audience, because that’s been such a hallmark of PBS’ recent success,” executive producer David Zabel told TheWrap. Zabel also hopes to tap into PBS’ viewership from its historical documentaries such as Ken Burns’ “The Civil War.”

“Some of the ‘Civil War’ audience is a more male audience,” Zabel said. “Some of the ‘Downton Abbey’ audience is a more female audience. If we hit the sweet spot, which I hope we did, we can appeal to both of those audiences.”

“Mercy Street” is steeped in war and features the occasional flashes of gore that might surprise viewers of “Downton” and PBS’ other U.K. drama imports. But set in a hospital, the show keeps its focus off the battlefield and on the interpersonal drama between the characters — several of whom wear corsets and have romantic aspirations.

“The comedy that’s in the show is going to be sort of unexpected, and that’s something that I think is similar to ‘Downton,’” “Mercy Street” star Mary Elizabeth Winstead told TheWrap. “There’s certainly a lot of heavier subject matter on our show. But there are machinations that you’ll want to follow or want to root for or the opposite so in that sense there are similarities.”

“Mercy Street” premieres Sunday, Jan. 17 at 10 p.m. ET on PBS.