'Downton Abbey' Season Three Debut on U.K.'s ITV Averages 8.6 Million Live Viewers

The hit drama's return drew a big audience for the commercial broadcaster, but was down slightly from the average of 9 million hit in live viewership last year.

LONDON - Downton Abbey returned to British commercial broadcaster ITV1 Sunday night with an average audience of 8.6 million, or 9 million when including people who watched the show with a delay of one hour on catch-up network ITV1+1.

That meant a share of 34.6 percent of people watching TV in Britain at the time, making it the highest-rated ITV drama of the year.

The season three debut of the hit drama, which airs in the 9pm time slot right after Simon Cowell's The X Factor, reached a peak audience of 9.3 million, or 9.6 million when including ITV1+1.

The first episode of the second season last year had attracted an average audience of 9 million viewers on ITV1, or a 34.6 percent share of people watching TV at the time. Including viewership on ITV1+1, which airs shows with an hour delay, the audience had reached nearly 9.3 million last year.

Last year's debut episode of Downton Abbey had a 15-minute peak viewership of 9.9 million and a five-minute peak of 10.4 million.

ITV said the 90-minute Downton Abbey return won its time slot by drawing double the audience of the next-ranked network in the 9-10:30pm slot. "With an average audience of 8.1 million viewers between [7pm and 10:30p,], ITV1 was the highest rating channel in peak by more than 3 mlllion viewers," it added.

The drama with an ensemble cast featuring the likes of Maggie Smith and, starting this season, Shirley MacLaine, was written principally by Julian Fellowes.

In the U.S., the show has been airing on PBS since 2011. Its second season gave the network its biggest audience since 2009 with an average audience of 5.4 million. The third season will kick off there early next year.

Email: Georg.Szalai@thr.com

Twitter: @georgszalai