The producers of the PBS series “Masterpiece” had an office pool going to guess the premiere ratings for Season 3 of “Downton Abbey,” the British period drama that has improbably become one of America’s most-buzzed-about shows.
Five million viewers, surpassing the Season 2 premiere? Maybe six million, even more than the Season 2 finale? Did anyone dare bet seven million?
No. Nobody did. Sunday’s premiere, though, attracted at least 7.9 million viewers, exceeding everyone’s estimation — and catapulting PBS above commercial broadcasters like ABC and NBC, at least for a night.
Craig Reed of TRAC Media Services, a consultant for public television stations, said that not since the premiere of “Civil War” in 1990 “have we seen numbers like this.”
The high viewership on Sunday night indicated that followers of the program’s first two seasons tolerated the delay of months that separated the British and American broadcasts of the third season, despite online spoilers and illegal streams of the show, and that an avalanche of positive publicity for “Downton Abbey” had generated some new fans.
Whether they’ll come back for six more Sundays in a row remains to be seen. Even more uncertain is whether PBS can capitalize on the sudden rush of interest by raising pledges from new viewers and persuading them to come back for other productions.
“Masterpiece,” a co-producer of “Downton” with the British company Carnival Films, is already thinking about how to promote its next series, “Mr. Selfridge,” which starts in March. And other stations across the country, some of which organized viewing parties for the “Downton” premiere, are “trying to remind people what else is on public TV,” said Paula Kerger, chief executive of PBS.
The second season of “Downton” garnered about 4.2 million viewers when it arrived in the United States at this time last year, and had gained about a million more by the end of the season. PBS expected the third season to capture even more, but Ms. Kerger was still surprised when she looked out of her Washington apartment window on Sunday night and saw “Downton” on in “probably three-fourths” of her neighbors’ homes. “I know this sounds very ‘Rear Window,’ ” she said on Tuesday, laughing.
Her sample was inordinately interested in the Crawley family, but so, too, was the rest of the country: while “Downton Abbey” was on, PBS outperformed Fox, ABC and NBC, according to preliminary Nielsen ratings. CBS still ranked No. 1 for the night with of “The Good Wife,” at 10 million viewers, and “The Mentalist,” at 10.7 million.
That’s partly a testament to savvy scheduling on PBS’s part. Although some fans of the series were upset by the decision to delay the American premiere for four months beyond the British start date, it placed “Downton” in a “very sweet spot,” said Rebecca Eaton, the executive producer of “Masterpiece.” For one thing, “Sunday Night Football” had the week off. For another, some of the commercial networks were running repeats.
Ms. Eaton noted that if “Downton” had started stateside in the fall, it might have been swamped by all the new dramas on the commercial networks. Furthermore, the attention paid to the show — and maybe even the spoilers that American fans had to tiptoe around for much of the fall — might have spurred more people to catch up by watching past episodes on PBS.org.
Ms. Eaton acknowledged that the long delay irritated some fans, but also said she wondered, “Does frustration turn into anticipation, which turns into buzz, which turns into a large audience?”
On that point, a spokeswoman for the Twitter social networking site said it measured 10 times as much conversation around “Downton” as around the only two higher-rated shows on Sunday, “The Good Wife” and “The Mentalist.”
“It’s like with the Olympics,” Ms. Kerger said. “People knew what the outcome was, but there were still record numbers of people who were watching at night, because they wanted to have that collective experience.”
Mr. Reed, the consultant, said that the “Civil War” documentary series by Ken Burns “produced about four times the typical number of prime-time viewers for PBS” back in the 1990s, while Sunday’s premiere averaged “about five times the usual number.”
“This is significant and encouraging for PBS, because it demonstrates that in this day and age a niche broadcaster can still have an impact on the national psyche,” he said in an e-mail.
“Having this kind of success increases PBS’s chances of doing it again in the future,” he added. “Program suppliers will see PBS as a factor and a solid choice.”
Commercial networks are racing to add shows about class and wealth like “Downton”; last weekend, when Oprah Winfrey’s cable channel, OWN, had a press preview of a Tyler Perry production called “The Haves and the Have Nots,” about the relationship between a rich family and its housekeeper’s poor family, it was instantly labeled “OWN’s ‘Downton.’ ”
Back in November, NBC ordered a drama called “The Gilded Age” from Julian Fellowes, the creator of “Downton.”
For public television, too, “the success of ‘Downton’ has increased the number of projects in the pipeline like it,” Ms. Eaton said.
Fear not, “Downton” fans: a fourth season is in production.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: January 15, 2013
An article on Wednesday about the high ratings for the season premiere of “Downton Abbey” on PBS included a quotation from Craig Reed of TRAC Media Services that misstated the date of the premiere of “The Civil War” by Ken Burns, which Mr. Reed cited as the last time public television had “numbers like this.” It was 1990, not 1992. And two pictures accompanying the article carried incomplete credits. The photographs of two scenes from the show are by Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television for Masterpiece.