Maggie Smith, left, as the Dowager Countess and Michelle Dockery...

Maggie Smith, left, as the Dowager Countess and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary in PBS' "Downton Abbey." Credit: Carnival Films

"Downton Abbey,” easily the most viewed series on public television and one of the most successful in PBS history, will end at the conclusion of the sixth season, Carnival and NBCUniversal have announced.

But consider this a bad news/good news post: Producers and company executives also confirmed during a news conference that they are actively considering either a movie to follow the sixth season, or a spin-off. In fact, the latter is a real possibility. 

Here's the series wrap statement, from creator Julian Fellowes:

“The Downton journey has been amazing for everyone aboard,” Fellowes said in Thursday’s announcement. “People ask if we knew what was going to happen when we started to make the first series and the answer is that, of course we had no idea. Exactly why the series had such an impact and reached so many people around the world, all nationalities, all ages, all types, I cannot begin to explain. But I do know how grateful we are to have been allowed this unique experience. I suspect the show will always be a principal marker in most of our careers as we set out from here, and if so, I consider that a blessing and a compliment.”

Here's Gareth Neame, executive producer, and the other force behind "Downton:"  "Millions of people around the world have followed the journey of the Crawley family and those who serve them for the last five years. Inevitably there comes a time when all shows should end and Downton is no exception. We wanted to close the doors of Downton Abbey when it felt right and natural for the storylines to come together and when the show was still being enjoyed so much by its fans. We can promise a final season full of all the usual drama and intrigue, but with the added excitement of discovering how and where they all end up…”

The end was indeed expected, though not because audience enthusiasm has waned — and in fact, quite the opposite. (The fifth season launch was seen by just over 10 million viewers.) Fellowes is developing a new series for NBC, about New York of the Gilded Age, while some of the key actors have contracts that will end when the sixth season is complete, according to a report on TVLine late last week. (The website said the sixth would indeed be the last.) Dame Maggie Smith has also said in interviews that her character, Violet Crawley, had essentially run her course, and that she too would likely leave after the sixth as well. 

The sixth and final season is not expected to arrive until next year.

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