- Associated Press - Monday, August 1, 2011

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. (AP) - The PBS program “Masterpiece” is marking its 40th year in style.

“Masterpiece” executive producer Rebecca Eaton announced that a national corporate sponsor, a luxury cruise company, will be on board for the first time in more than six years. Viking River Cruises will contribute an unspecified amount to the PBS program starting in the final quarter of this year.

The program was funded since its 1971 debut by Exxon Mobil, which ended its support at the end of 2004. PBS has been funding “Masterpiece” and will continue to support it, Eaton said.

Customers of the cruise line that operates in Europe, China and elsewhere closely match the “Masterpiece” demographic, Eaton told the Television Critics Association on Sunday.

Ratings are another reason for celebration, she said, with a 43 percent increase over last year spurred by a strong lineup of shows including “Sherlock,” “Downton Abbey” and “Upstairs Downstairs.”

“It’s a great way to turn 40, I can tell you,” Eaton said.

All will return to PBS for a second season, starting with “Downton Abbey” next January. The series, set in an English country estate in the early 20th century, stars Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith, Dan Stevens and Michelle Dockery.

“Sherlock” will be back in spring 2012, followed by “Upstairs Downstairs” in 2013.

The three shows, along with the drama series “Any Human Heart,” garnered a record 25 Emmy nominations for “Masterpiece,” Eaton said.

Two upcoming “Masterpiece: Contemporary” specials announced Sunday include “Page Eight,” a conspiracy thriller starring Bill Nighy and written and directed by David Hare, and “A Song of Lunch,” a relationship drama with Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman. Both specials air in November.

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