No downturn in Downton Abbey ratings as 8.7m tune in for series three premiere

ITV1 period drama enjoyed its largest ever audience for a series opener on Sunday night

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An average audience of nearly 8.7m viewers tuned in to ITV1 and HD last night to see the start of Downton Abbey’s third series, giving Julian Fellowes’s popular period drama its highest ever rated season opener.

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The promise of Matthew and Mary’s on-screen nuptials lured in an average of 8m viewers on ITV1 and earned the channel a 32% audience share between 9-10:30pm.

Another 624,000 (2.5%) watched in glorious high definition on ITV1 HD making Downton the best performing programme in its timeslot by quite some way, beating off competition from BBC1’s Inspector George Gently (4.3m/16%), Dragons’ Den on BBC2 (1.7m/6.7%) and Channel 4’s Big Fat Quiz of the 80s (1.7m/6.8%).

When Downton’s first series made the air in 2010, its debut edition was seen by 7.3m viewers, and a year later 8.2m tuned in for the start of series two. Even last year’s Christmas special, which went head to head with EastEnders on December 25, only managed an average viewership of 8.1m people, meaning that ITV’s number crunchers will doubtless be cock-a-hoop this morning.

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So while the programme didn’t quite manage the 10m+ audience pundits were predicting, anyone hoping to recycle Private Eye’s “Downturn Abbey” headline in their ratings reports this morning will have been sorely disappointed…