How did Carnival Films finance its 2010 hit, Downton Abbey? Ben Dowell reports

ITV1’s Downton Abbey was that rare beast: a broadcasting sensation which did not see a cast member voted off each week. Downton quickly became part of the UK’s national conversation in late autumn 2010 when at its peak the Sunday evening show attracted nearly 12 million viewers. The seven-part series was made with the backing of NBCUniversal, parent company of UK production outfit Carnival Films.

The idea for the show came from Carnival managing director Gareth Neame. In 2008, a TV adaptation of Julian Fellowes’ novel Snobs was hitting the buffers. But ITV liked Neame’s idea of Fellowes recreating his Gosford Park magic in an expanded series format about life in an upper-class household in the days before the First World War. The broadcaster was prepared to invest a hefty sum, believed by sources to be a little more than 50% of the overall budget of a drama which cost around $11m (£7m) to make. The rest — a “substantial deficit” according to Neame — was covered by Carnival itself. Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern signed up to star.

All profits from the show will be from secondary sales and DVD rights. ITV takes 15% of net receipts; the rest goes to Carnival and Fellowes. The company says it has not made money from the project but, thanks to healthy foreign sales (it has been sold to about 100 territories), it is on course to turn a profit. Spain’s Antena 3 debuted the series in March to its highest ratings for a foreign fiction programme in recent years.

“The traditional model of getting a licence fee which covers, say, 92% of the budget with the rest made up in other areas, is simply over,” notes Neame. “The fact is that to make high-end drama you need to work this way.”

Neame admits his initial fear that ITV’s “aggressive” purchase of broadcasting rights (it has been repeated twice on ITV1 and once on ITV3) may impact DVD sales but so far that has not happened.

“These are the terms of trade and we have to live by them,” he notes. By the end of February, series one had sold an impressive 353,000 DVD units worldwide.