Downton Abbey Season Premiere Ratings: HUGE!

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A year off the air did little to harm the popularity of Downton Abbey in the United States, as last night's Season 3 premiere aired to enormous ratings on PBS.

The series returned to 7.9 million viewers, according to Nielsen Fast National data, including a 5.1 household rating, which quadruples the average PBS primetime rating - and is a 96% increase over the Downton Abbey Season 2 premiere.

Shirley MacLaine and Maggie Smith

Even more incredibly, for its two-hour episode, the drama was only beaten by CBS in terms of network ratings.

"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 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."

Matt Richenthal is the Editor in Chief of TV Fanatic. Follow him on Twitter and on Google+.

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