TV Ratings: 'Downton Abbey' Makes PBS Return to Record 10.2 Million Viewers

Downton Abbey Season 4 - H 2013

Downton Abbey Season 4 - H 2013

PBS' latest Downton Abbey ratings are big enough to make even Lady Mary smile.

The hot British import launched its fourth season on Sunday night, netting an average 10.2 million viewers over the course of the two-hour episode. That's a 22 percent jump, year over year, easily making it the highest-rated drama in PBS history.

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The previous season of Downton Abbey debuted in January 2013 with 7.9 million viewers, eventually hitting a then U.S. record the following month when 8.2 million viewers tuned in to the finale. The third run grossed 24 million viewers, making it PBS' most-watched drama to date.

As Downton Abbey's international audience has grown at a rapid pace over the last few years, the question of PBS airing it on a delay has often been called into question. The broadcaster has explored the option of debuting seasons of the show closer to their airtime on ITV, much as it does with Sherlock, but PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger recently noted that the current schedule works.

"We have looked at this whole issue of spoilers and thought about how to best steward the broadcast," Kerger said during the summer 2013 television critics association press tour. "We look carefully at the [competition] in the fall schedule with that in mind. We look at how we get promotion and buzz about it -- and that word of mouth has actually benefited us. We don't want to mess with that if it's working so well."

These latest numbers certainly support their case. Downton Abbey has already been renewed for a fifth season, which will again air stateside on PBS' Masterpiece Classic.