'Downton Abbey' Draws Best Ever U.K. Season Premiere Ratings

Shirley MacLaine in Downton Abbey - H 2012

Shirley MacLaine in Downton Abbey - H 2012

UPDATED: The costume drama created by Julian Fellowes returned for its fourth season on Sunday night with an average of 9.5 million viewers.

LONDON -- The season-four premiere of Downton Abbey drew an average audience of 9.5 million for Britain's ITV Sunday night, marking the show's best ever season debut.

The figure compared with the 9.0 million overnight audience for the third-season opener when Shirley MacLaine's character started her showdown with Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess.

The costume drama created by Julian Fellowes drew an average share of 39.6 percent of the British TV audience at the time. It reached a peak audience of 10.5 million, ITV said. That compared with 9.6 million last year.

All figures include viewers for ITV1+1, a catch-up network that re-airs the show with an hour delay.

The period drama broadcasts in the 9 p.m. time slot, right after Simon Cowell's The X Factor. Usually an hour long, Sunday's season-premiere episode ran 90 minutes.

Downton Abbey had finished its third season on ITV1 with a season-high ratings performance, bringing to an end what the network said was the highest-rated season of the show to-date when including some delayed same-day viewing. The costume drama drew a peak audience of 10.7 million and an average viewership of 10.1 million for the final episode of season three.

In the U.S., the show has been airing on PBS since 2011, with season four returning in January.

At Sunday's Emmys, Downton Abbey, produced by NBCUniversal's Carnival Films, was nominated for 12 awards but didn't win any.

?Meanwhile, The X Factor? was the most watched program in the U.K. Sunday night, averaging 9.8 million viewers. That was the singing competition's second-most-watched episode of the current 10th season.

E-mail: Georg.Szalai@THR.com
Twitter: @georgszalai