In sweeps, size matters. The ratings periods are all about drawing the biggest crowds to shows hyped as events.
Although few programs warrant the buildup, broadcast executives merrily brag about their results anyway. Ultimately, the four-week sweeps are about numbers: ratings, who's first, who's falling.
Two phenomena will drive the May sweeps, which start today. The American Idol finale unfolds May 26, the last night of sweeps. The final hour last season attracted 38.1 million viewers. That made it the season's second most-watched entertainment show, after the Joe Millionaire selection show seen by 40 million.
This season's edition of American Idol has displayed remarkable drawing power. The Tuesday performance show ranks No. 1 among total viewers, and the Wednesday results show places at No. 3. (CBS' CSI comes in at No. 2.) Unless viewers grow furious with the voting results, American Idol could well surpass its fade-out last year.
The other biggie: Friends ends its 10-year run May 6 with a retrospective followed by the one-hour finale. NBC's Thursday anchor places No. 6 for the season, making it the highest-rated sitcom.
The audience should be huge, although the march to the finale hasn't become the national event that the Seinfeld goodbye was six years ago. Perhaps that's because many viewers believe Ross, Rachel and the gang have lingered too long.
Other trends to watch for during this ratings period:
More farewells: NBC's Frasier ends its 11-year run May 13, with an hourlong retrospective followed by the hour finale. One of the great sitcoms, Frasier has won more Emmys than any other entertainment series.
UPN says goodbye to The Parkers May 10. Despite fans' urgent objections, the WB brings down the curtain on Angel May 19.
CBS hasn't confirmed that Everybody Loves Raymond will be back next season. Could the May 24 episode be the end?
Ho-hum ratings might put Star Trek: Enterprise in mothballs. UPN bills the May 26 episode as the season finale, but it could be the series finale too.
Reality season finales: CBS' Survivor: All-Stars concludes May 9 with a two-hour episode. Then the players reunite in Madison Square Garden.
ABC's The Bachelor on May 19 reveals quarterback Jesse Palmer's selection of his romantic favorite. On the May 26 show, he appears publicly with her for the first time.
Movies: Television is a recycling business. In 1976, CBS presented a miniseries of Helter Skelter, detailing the investigation and trial of mass murderer Charles Manson. A new, three-hour movie, set for May 16, focuses on Manson (Jeremy Davies) and his sway over followers.
The networks will present just two miniseries this time. NBC's 10.5 imagines disaster for the country's West Coast. Seismic expert Kim Delaney contends with catastrophe Sunday and Monday.
ABC shares its long-promised version of A Wrinkle in Time, based on Madeleine L'Engle's book, on May 10. The three-hour film features Gregory Smith of Everwood.
Guest stars: The networks love to spotlight movie stars and bring back TV favorites. Jennifer Lopez headlines tonight's Will & Grace on NBC.
Tori Spelling visits ABC's Less Than Perfect Tuesday. A night later, Betty White plays a maid on ABC's My Wife and Kids. Attention, fans of The Mary Tyler Moore Show: White will appear opposite Cloris Leachman in the May 9 Malcolm in the Middle on Fox.
Sandra Bullock returns to ABC's George Lopez May 7. Johnny Depp supplies the voice of Hank's yoga instructor on the May 9 King of the Hill on Fox. Billy Dee Williams visits the May 10 Half & Half on UPN, and Lou Gossett Jr. pops up a week later.
Susan Lucci and other soap stars poke fun at their melodramatic field in the May 14 episode of ABC's Hope & Faith.
Cliffhangers and turning points: Matt (Barry Watson) tries to salvage his marriage May 10 on the WB's 7th Heaven. The WB hints that Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and Luke (Scott Patterson) are finally headed toward romance in the May 11 Gilmore Girls.
Danny (Josh Duhamel) is called to military service in the May 17 season finale of NBC's Las Vegas.
CBS suggests that Jack Malone (Anthony LaPaglia) might move from New York to Chicago in the May 20 Without a Trace. Fox's 24 wraps up its latest daylong thriller May 25.
The May 17 debut of The WB's Superstar USA will test America's appetite for reality. The show sends up American Idol by featuring untalented singers who mistakenly believe they can gain stardom. They should fit in during sweeps.
Hal Boedeker can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5756.