Nov. 23, 2012 at 7:06 PM ET
LONDON - U.K. TV network operator ITV plans to bring back hit show Downton Abbey for a fourth season. It announced the re-commission on Friday.
The costume drama, which stars Maggie Smith and others, finished its third season on ITV1 in early November with a season-high ratings performance, bringing to an end what the network said was the highest-rated season of the show to-date.
In its Sunday night slot, the series from Julian Fellowes, who recently signaled optimism that the series would return, managed to beat music competition show "X Factor" late in the season in average viewership, even though peak viewership for X Factor typically outperformed "Downton."
ITV said that the third season of the period drama, which in the U.S. will start on PBS on Jan. 6, averaged 9.7 million viewers when including delayed viewing on the same day, for example via DVR. Season one had averaged 8.4 million viewers, and season two had averaged 9.5 million.
ITV, which will air a two-hour "Downton Abbey" special on Christmas Day like it had done last year, has been expected to order a fourth season of the drama due to solid live viewership and boosts in delayed viewing. This year's holiday special sees Lord and Lady Grantham and family heading for a summer break in the Highlands of Scotland, leaving most of their servants back at home, ITV said Friday.
The fourth season will be set in the early 1920s and return to ITV in the fall of 2013, followed by an extended Christmas special. Filming is set to start in February.
Gareth Neame, managing director of NBCUniversal production label Carnival Films and executive producer of "Downton" said the new season will include some new faces. “Viewers can look forward to more drama, comedy, love, hatred, jealousy, rivalry, ambition, despair and romance,” he said.
Laura Mackie, director of drama at ITV, added: “We’re thrilled to welcome back a drama series that has become a much anticipated part of all our lives every autumn and achieved success around the globe.
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