"Downton Abbey" sets PBS record with 7.9 million viewers

LOS ANGELES Mon Jan 7, 2013 5:25pm EST

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - British period drama "Downton Abbey" scored rave reviews and a record 7.9 million viewers for public broadcasting channel PBS as viewers tuned in to watch a wedding and financial calamity during the award-winning show's third season U.S. premiere on Sunday.

Fans witnessed the wedding of Matthew and Lady Mary Crawley, after two seasons in which viewers were kept wondering if they would ever tie the knot.

According to PBS, the ratings for season 3 quadrupled the average viewings for PBS primetime shows, which usually is 2 million viewers, and nearly doubled the premiere of the second season, which kicked off with 4.2 million viewers in January 2012.

The joy over the wedding was offset by news that Lord Grantham, the owner of the grand estate, had lost his fortune to bad investments.

American actress Shirley MacLaine debuted in the role of the feisty Martha Levinson, the mother of Lord Grantham's American wife Cora. She entertained viewers with her witty exchanges with Downton matriarch Violet Crawley, played by Maggie Smith.

"Downton Abbey," created by British screenwriter Julian Fellowes, has become both a critical success and a cult favorite among its many U.S. fans.

It has won seven Emmy awards and will be going into Sunday's Golden Globe awards with three nominations in major television categories including best drama series.

Vanity Fair, which live-tweets humorous comments during the show, leads a strong online following of fans who discuss aspects of the show ranging from dresses and dances to the dramatic twists.

"The Subcommittee on Preventing Edith's Happiness resolves to kill off her boyfriend, put thumbtacks in her evening shoes," the magazine tweeted, referring to the unlucky-in-love Lady Edith Crawley.

PBS said that the show garnered nearly 100,000 tweets during its Sunday premiere.

(Reporting By Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Patricia Reaney and Eric Walsh)