The Unlikely Benefactor Keeping Downton Abbey Afloat

PBS released its ratings for Sunday’s season 2 finale of the hit show Downton Abbey today, and the public broadcasting network isn’t the only winner. An estimated 5.4 million people tuned in live on Sunday night (that’s 1 million more viewers than last week’s Two and a Half Men had, according to ratings tracker Nielsen), and most of them also saw the only advertisement that aired with every episode of Downton this season: Viking River Cruises.

If you’re a fan of the British import, you know the drill: On Sunday nights, PBS begins your Downton experience with a greeting from actress Laura Linney who introduces the show, which is a part of the Masterpiece franchise. Between Linney and an hour of uninterrupted programming, viewers are treated to a 30-second spot featuring silver-haired cruisers shuffling through Red Square, drinking coffee near a stately bridge, and enjoying red wine aboard a Viking vessel. A voiceover with a vaguely European accent invites viewers to visit “a world of dramatic landscapes, majestic castles and remarkable characters.”

Though he declined to provide financial specifics, Viking’s Senior Vice President of Marketing Richard Marnell says that the company has made gains because of the sponsorship. “It’s something we can see a tangible benefit in,” he says, citing increased web traffic and online chatter. “We expected it would do well,” he says of the partnership with PBS. “It certainly has done far better than we expected.”

The relationship with the network began last summer, when Marnell surveyed its tony customers (Viking’s 15-day Grand European cruise costs up to $15,899 for a suite this October, not including translatlantic flights) about their favorite television shows. Among the expected answers of news programs and sports was the surprising popularity of Masterpiece, the 41-year-old franchise that has featured dramas such as Bleak House and Miss Marple. Based on the survey results, Marnell cold-called the network, and within 48 hours had inked a deal to be the PBS Masterpiece sponsor beginning in October. “It was one of those things that we had to go with intuition on,” Marnell says. The Viking spots air at the start of other Masterpiece shows including Sherlock.

The California-based Viking travels to destinations such as China, Russia and Egypt, touting itself as the world’s largest river cruise line. Marnell says the 15-year-old company has tripled its business since 2007. ExxonMobil was a longtime corporate sponsor for Masterpiece, ending its three-decade-long relationship with the series in 2004.

“Their people are our people,” Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton said of Viking’s customer base in a statement announcing the partnership last summer. “We are truly a marriage made in heaven.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE