downton-abbeyAn average of 8.5 million viewers tuned in for Downton Abbey‘s fourth season finale last night. That’s a personal finale best for the period drama on PBS. The Season 3 finale drew 8.2 million viewers on February 17 last year, a 50% surge from the Season 2 ender in 2012.

This season  opened on January 5 with 10.2 million tuned in – up 22% compared to the Season 3 debut of 7.9 million which, in turn had been a leap from the series Season 2 launch crowd of 4.2 mil. Even before this latest cycle started, Downton Abbey has been the highest-rated drama in PBS history.

In the UK, the fourth cycle of the Julian Fellowes-created and Carnival Films-produced series had its best British debut ever with 9.5 million viewers watching the ITV-broadcasted show on September 22, 2013. The Downton Season 4 finale on November 10, 2013 hit a UK series-record 9.8 million viewers. And its  average 11.8M viewers made it Britain’s highest-rated TV drama of 2013.

The fifth season of Downton Abbey has been set to premiere on co-producer PBSMasterpiece next January after debuting in the UK in the fall, again written by Fellowes and exec produced by Carnival chief Gareth Neame, as well as Liz Trubridge and Fellowes.

Earlier this month, Downton celebrated its third consecutive  year as The Show That Did The Best Against The Super Bowl. An estimated 111.5 million viewers watched the Seattle Seahawks pulverize the Denver Broncos on Fox that Sunday, and 6.8 million viewers opted instead to watch PBS’s period drama —  up 3% compared to previous year’s 6.6 million Super Bowl Sunday broadcast of Downton.

Last month, there was some breathless reporting about comments made by Fellowes in The Wall Street Journal; Fellowes said he didn’t “know yet if there is a season 6, but it’s not going to go on forever. It won’t be Perry Mason.” This led to rampant headlines about the possible demise of the hit Brit period drama just after its American debut, which prompted executive producer Neame to release a statement, saying,  “I can confirm that there are no plans to end the show after the fifth series.”  Fellowes is signed on for NBC drama The Gilded Age with a script commitment and significant penalty attached, and he’s previously said that if NBC picks up the show, he’ll be writing it when Downton “finishes.” Neame will be collaborating with Fellowes on The Gilded Age.