sherlock-season-3-finaleUPDATED WITH TCA PANEL, 4:24 PM: Moving Sherlock has paid off for PBS. Last night’s third-season debut clocked an average audience of nearly 4 million viewers — the franchise’s biggest audience yet, according to Masterpiece exec producer Rebecca Eaton. That’s compared to the 3.2 million who’d watched the Season 2 launch. Sherlock’s move also boosted Downton Abbey last night — the drawing-room drama’s third episode of its fourth season reached an average audience of 8.4 million, up compared to the second episode’s audience of 7.9 million.

Star Benedict Cumberbatch ducked a question as to how many more three-episode seasons of Sherlock he thinks he can handle while appearing this afternoon at the TCA Winter TV Press Tour. Someone with him onstage noted BBC reportedly has said they’ll continue making them until Cumberbatch gets too famous and refuses. “Why is it always me,” Cuberbatch complained/simpered. Masterpiece chief Rebecca Eaton asked PBS chief Paula Kerger to commit to taking as many seasons as Cumberbatch thought he could handle. Kerger, seated in the audience, agreed.

One TV critic in the crowd said he’d been coming to the press tour for ages and can’t remember ever seeing rabid fans camped outside the Pasadena hotel where the clambake is staged, holding love-letter signs, like they did for Cumberbatch today. Discuss this, the critic instructed Cumberbatch. The actor obliged, saying his reaction to the mob outside was one of  “guilt,” because he showed up so late he had to run past the fans who, he said, will have to “wait another three-odd hours” before he can make his appearance. That said, he says he feels an enormous sense of responsibility to the fans who he described as “by and large intelligent” and “some of them normal.”

2014 Winter TCA Tour - Day 12“So yeah, no, it means a lot to me — a hell of a lot to me,” he added quickly.  What also means a lot to him, he said, are those fans who do not camp outside hotels in Pasadena with signs, but who sit down with their families to watch Sherlock – even those who grumble that they like the Jeremy Brett version better, he insisted generously. And, he noted, he likes that his show has boosted Arthur Conan Doyle’s book sales tremendously. “That makes me feel great,” Cumberbatch said proudly, adding it’s one of the advantages of keeping viewers waiting so long between seasons. Eaton shook her head to disagree. “Books are good,” he lectured Eaton.

You know what Cumberbatch really likes? When actors he admires tell him “You’re fantastic!” like Harrison Ford did when they were both guests on Graham Norton’s show. “It was genuine, and a lovely thing to happen, Cumberbatch said.

“Does Sherlock always stay with you? One critic asked. “Yeah. Sometimes. No,” he answered. “Does that clear that up?” Sherlock co-creator/exec producer Steven Moffat asked the crowd.

Cumberbatch acknowledged he “felt really sentimental about letting [Sherlock] go” after doing the most recent season. He also said it was hard to “get the words out” on the most recent season, having just played Julian Assange, who swallows his words. It was a matter of “muscle memory,” he explained.

Cumberbatch prides himself on being somebody who still takes public transportation and does his own shopping, rather than “sending out a minion” and sitting “on top of ivory tower with guns pointed at the street.” “I value my privacy and having space to think on my own,” he said, and being a TV and movie star is particularly tough when he’s having a down day and someone he’s never met before shoves a camera in his face. It was when he went to get take-out chicken and the guy behind the counter went all fanboy on him, and it he didn’t get his chicken for ages – “that’s the first moment I said “Oh…Christ, I do stuff people see.”

And yes, he acknowledged when asked by a critic, he did in fact push Mary offstage while performing in a Nativity scene. “We were kids,” he protested. “Did I ever push you on the set?” he asked, turning to this season’s Sherlock co-star Amanda Abbington. “No,” she replied. “There you go!” he said.

pbs-masterpiece-logoPREVIOUS, 12:24 PM: In October, PBS announced Benedict Cumberbatch, fresh off his feature film flop The Fifth Estate (though he got good notices for playing WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange), would return in the far-better-reviewed Sherlock starting earlier than usual — on January 19 in the 10 PM time slot following Downton. Scheduling Sherlock’s three 90-minute episodes to follow Downton, PBS said, “reinforces PBS’ move into 10 PM programming on several key nights.”

Sherlock just wrapped its Season 3 on BBC One, where the finale last weekend was the most-watched TV program in the UK. The episode drew 8.77M viewers for a 32.1% share, according to the overnights. That came after the season premiere January 1 was the show’s most-watched episode ever in the UK at 9.2M viewers. Cumberbatch said last year that there will be a fourth season of the detective drama, with Moffat saying the next season would be made as quickly as possible.