At a TCA panel yesterday, PBS president Paula Kerger said, “We’re not punishing our viewers.” The comment was made with regard to the lag time between when Downton Abbey airs on the UK’s ITV and in the U.S. on PBS. Well, here’s good news for folks who can’t get enough fast enough of the Crawley clan – and for those trying to avoid the spoilers that have been whizzing around the Web. Apple said yesterday that North American subscribers to iTunes who purchase a season pass for the show will get a jump on the last three episodes of season three before they air on PBS. The episodes, including the special season finale which airs on February 17, will be available for download on iTunes beginning January 29. The period drama’s second season was the best-selling TV series on iTunes last year and the exclusive season three Downton preview is said to be a first for the company.

Season three’s regular run ended in the UK in November with a special episode on Christmas Day. It was the highest-rated of the show’s seasons so far and when it began airing on PBS on January 6, it pulled in 7.9M viewers, almost doubling the season two PBS premiere. ITV has ordered a fourth season of the show with filming to kick off next month. Whether there’s more in store beyond that likely won’t be known until the end of the year, although PBS Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton recently told me, “I hope it goes forever. As long as Julian (Fellowes) can lift a pen, I hope it continues.”