PBS is hoping to "make audiences think of public television more like the top-tier programming of HBO, Showtime and other channels they are willing to pay for," according to the New York Times. As chief programmer John Wilson said, “Think of PBS and the local stations as premium television on the honors system.”
An aggressive promotional campaign helped "Downton Abbey" on Masterpiece win six Emmy Awards, the paper noted. "The thinking was that [PBS] had to up their game,” said Kliff Kuehl, president of KCPT in Kansas City, Mo. “That’s what we’ve evolved to — trying to give people that pay-TV moment.”
And federal funding remains an important component of PBS's success, said President Paula Kerger. "People say ‘your business model is broken’ and we should walk away from federal appropriations,” she said. “It’s an unusual system but frankly, PBS was envisioned as a public/private partnership. I don’t think we can trade out that blend that makes public television different.”
UPDATE: Variety blogger Brian Lowry thinks the New York Times is giving PBS too much credit for its "strategy" with "Downton Abbey." He writes: "PBS and Masterpiece didn't set out to justify public broadcasting's existence by ordering 'Downton Abbey.' They simply happened to stumble onto a terrific, compelling program (or programme, if you prefer) that connected with viewers. Now, they are doing what they should do — trying to capitalize on its success by reminding people public television carries certain fare that doesn't often flourish in the commercial space. In other words, PBS is like pretty much everyone else in TV: A surprise success dictates strategy, not the other way around. Still, let's not get carried away: The prospect of public television replicating that success and delivering another showcase with this kind of impact is a complete crapshoot."