'Downton Abbey' Premiere Hits 7.9 Million, Nearly Doubles Previous Season

Shirley MacLaine in Downton Abbey - H 2012

Shirley MacLaine in Downton Abbey - H 2012

The delay did not hurt Downton Abbey.

The British import, which already concluded its third season in its native U.K., surged 96 percent over its previous season premiere when it returned to PBS on Sunday night. The two-hour premiere pulled a whopping 7.9 million viewers, besting all but CBS in the time period. 

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Downton Abbey's growth comes after spending nearly a year off of U.S. airwaves, though that time saw the period soap burrow into pop culture and nab even more love from the Emmys, Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards.

PBS, which airs Downton Abbey as a part of its Masterpiece Classic franchise, touted in a release that the huge numbers quadrupled the network's average primetime showing.

Elsewhere on television, only CBS' combo of The Good Wife and The Mentalist eclipsed PBS in total viewers. The broadcast network averaged 10.3 million during the same two-hour block, according to fast national returns.

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Downton Abbey continues to enthrall audiences nationwide, and this season is especially riveting with the addition of Shirley MacLaine to the cast and the lively interaction between her and Maggie Smith,” said PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger in a joint statement. “I’m so pleased that audiences have returned to Downton Abbey on their local stations to continue to enjoy some of the best drama on television.”

The Masterpiece Classic broadcast of the season two finale brought 5.4 million viewers to PBS, and the series sophomore showing added as much as 50 percent with seven days of DVR viewing.