Dust off the teapot and dig up that recipe for scones: "Downton Abbey" returns Sunday to begin its fifth season as the undisputed star of the PBS lineup.
The event will be cause for celebration for the millions of fans of the British costume drama, many of whom treat the show's annual eight-week appearance as something of a national holiday.
It's unlikely, though, that many of those diehards are happier than the executives at PBS and its affiliate stations, where "Downton Abbey" has been the cornerstone of a system-wide ratings revival.
The fourth season of "Downton Abbey" drew an average of 13.2 million viewers an episode in its main run early in 2014, making it the most-watched drama in the history of PBS — breaking the record held by Season 3.
The success of "Downton Abbey" has spilled over to other dramas on PBS as well, especially the other British period pieces that make up the rest of "Masterpiece," such as "The Paradise," "Mr. Selfridge" and "Call the Midwife."
"We're seeing good audience growth for dramas," said Andrew Russell, chief operating officer at PBS SoCal, the Costa Mesa-based station that is the PBS flagship for Southern California. The result has been a huge lift in PBS' ratings fortunes.
For the 2013-14 television year, the nonprofit broadcaster came in at No. 5 among all cable and over-the-air networks in average prime-time ratings, trailing only CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox. In 2011-12, PBS ranked 11th.
The increased ratings for PBS come as virtually every other network is seeing overall declines as the number of options for viewers increases. It wasn't too many years ago that TV watchers were limited to channel surfing. Now, there are Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, YouTube, et al., not to mention that stack of recordings stashed on the DVR (which stop counting toward the ratings after seven days).
Achieving that has taken more than just the few hours of "Downton Abbey" each year.
"It has been a concerted effort on the national level," Russell said, noting that PBS had begun strengthening its prime-time lineup seven to eight years ago. The network started "branding" nights around themes: the dramas of "Masterpiece" and "Masterpiece Mystery" on Sundays, documentaries and news Tuesdays, science and nature Wednesdays.
Russell himself was a key part of that, having been the network's senior vice president for strategy and research before taking the job as chief operating officer at PBS SoCal.
Might "Downton Abbey" have reached its peak, though? Quite possibly.
In the United Kingdom, ratings for Season 5 were down substantially from Season 4's.
The season opened with 8.4 million viewers, the lowest since Season 1's premiere, and slipped to 8.1 million for Episode 2. Figuring in DVR viewers, Season 5 averaged 10.4 million viewers per episode, down from 11.8 million in Season 4, according to Deadline.com.
(In the U.K., a season — or "series," as they call it — runs for seven episodes in September and October, followed by a special episode that runs Christmas Day. In the United States, the Christmas special is treated as the eighth episode.)
Still, the sharp growth in the American audience has been fueled in part by the availability of previous seasons on streaming services. In the U.K., where the potential audience is smaller and has far fewer channels to choose from, "Downton" may have reached a saturation point. Here, it can still be reaching new viewers.
The four seasons
"Downton Abbey" weaves many interlocking plot lines involving a couple of dozen characters into a large tapestry of a story. Here is the barest of outlines (Spoilers ahead ...):
Season 1 takes place April 1912 to August 1914. Downton Abbey, the estate of Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, and his American-born wife, Cora, can only pass to a male heir, and they have three daughters. The eldest, Lady Mary, is engaged to the heir, her cousin James. James and his brother die in the Titanic disaster. The new heir is a distant cousin, Matthew Crawley, a solicitor.
The arrival of Matthew begins the central drama of Season 1, the clash between the traditional earl and his new heir, who is part of the growing professional middle class. The servants' lives are roiled by the arrival of John Bates, the earl's former military aide and new valet.
Romances develop between Matthew and Mary and between Mary's sister, Lady Sybil, and the chauffeur, Tom Branson.
World War I begins and Matthew, unsure of Mary's sincerity, departs.
Season 2 takes place 1916-20. Matthew and Tom enlist to go the war. Matthew is now engaged to Miss Lavinia Swire, even though he is still in love with Mary.
Matthew becomes paralyzed and returns to Downton to be cared for by Lady Mary. Tom comes home and elopes with Lady Sybil. Bates and Anna, the housemaid, strike up a romance that is cut short when Bates is wrongly accused of the murder of his ex-wife.
Matthew's paralysis miraculously disappears. The Spanish flu epidemic arrives to kill his fiancee. Matthew proposes to Mary. Sybil becomes pregnant.
Season 3 takes place 1920-21. Lord Grantham learns that his wife's money has been lost to his bad investments, leaving him near bankruptcy. Lavinia's father dies, and Matthew learns that he is the heir to that large fortune. However, he declines it, thinking that he is the heir under false pretenses. Matthew and Mary quarrel over this decision, as the money could save Downton Abbey.
A misplaced letter reveals that Lavinia's father knew of Matthew's feelings, but wanted him to have the money anyway. Matthew accepts the inheritance and uses it to bail out the earl.
Bates is convicted of his wife's murder. The Crawleys' third daughter, Lady Edith, becomes engaged to a much older man. Tom and Sybil return from Ireland to Downton Abbey to escape the Irish police. Sybil dies in childbirth.
Lady Rose, a young relative of the Crawleys, is sent to live at Downton. Edith's fiance calls off the wedding. Anna manages to get Bates freed from prison. Mary gives birth to a boy. On his way home from the hospital, Matthew dies in a car crash.
Season 4 takes place 1922-23. Tom, now manager of Downton Abbey, battles with the earl over the handling of the estate.
Another lost letter surfaces, this one proclaiming Mary as Matthew's sole heir. She, Tom and the earl eventually settle into joint management of Downton.
A visiting lord's valet rapes Anna. She refuses to tell Bates about the incident, because she worries he will kill the man. Mary is pursued by two new suitors.
Bates finally learns Anna's secret. Shortly after, the rapist is found dead. Lady Edith strikes up a romance with a newspaper publisher. She becomes pregnant. The publisher mysteriously disappears. Edith goes away to have the baby and gives her up to be raised by a local couple.
When: 9 p.m. starting Sunday for eight weeks as part of the "Masterpiece" series.