Tonight marks the beginning of the end of the TV season that wasn't. And while viewers will finally be able to see original episodes of such hits as Grey's Anatomy for the first time since the writers' strike, there isn't much else to get excited about as the network television season hits the home stretch of May sweeps.
For more than four decades, the last 30 days of each network TV season were filled with special events, movies, miniseries and crossover episodes of top series - all intended to inflate audience measurements used for the next four months to set advertising rates.
But not this year during the sweeps period that starts tonight and runs through May 21. With the writers' strike shutting down production in Hollywood from November to February, network executives consider it a triumph to have returned any of their hit series to the airwaves.
"I think you have to say the season is an anomaly because of the strike," said Mitch Metcalf, NBC executive vice president of program planning and scheduling.
While that might be true from a programmer's perspective, it doesn't offer much solace to viewers who are finding yet another aspect of American life downsized: the realm of prime-time series television.
"Just as a viewer, I would have to say that something significant has been lost," says Douglas Gomery, scholar in residence at the University of Maryland Library of American Broadcasting. "What looks to be missing this year are the three or four special network program events during May sweeps that used to mean much anticipation and lots of morning-after conversation among fans. I don't see that happening this year."
Tonight might be as good as it gets for fans of scripted drama and comedy with the return of Grey's, Lost and Ugly Betty on ABC. Executives at the network are promising a bit of old-fashioned sweeps stunt programming with Addison making a return visit to Seattle Grace starting next week. And Project Runway winner and Maryland native Christian Siriano will drop by on Ugly Betty.
Furthermore, ABC is offering extra episodes of Grey's, Betty and Lost. Even though sweeps will end May 21, the season finales of Grey's and Betty will air May 22, with Lost concluding May 28. (The network ordered five new episodes of each after the strike.)
Fox, which has been riding high since the start of the year thanks to such reality fare as American Idol and The Moment of Truth, will bring its Top-10 Nielsen drama House back for four episodes starting Monday. The two-part season finale will find House faced with the prospect of losing his best friend, Wilson.
With NBC's The Office and CBS' various CSI franchises and Monday-night sitcoms already back in business, at least viewers will have a solid month of their favorite network scripted series to savor.
But if there is any major excitement this sweeps period it is likely to come from the finales of Idol and Dancing with the Stars - the two highest-rated series on TV, reality programs that were not affected by the strike.
Despite a decided feeling of anti-climax for this year's sweeps, they do still matter - at least to the networks.
Program executives can talk all they want about how the season isn't an accurate reflection of viewing patterns because of the strike, but one startling set of facts remains - the networks' audience of viewers 18 to 49 years old is down 12 percent compared to a year ago. And a year ago, the young audience was down 10 percent compared to the season before.
ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW won't be able to bring back in one month all the viewers they lost to cable and/or various new media during the strike. But they hope they can show advertisers that some of them will return during the next 30 days.
"That's the test: Will the viewers come back for Grey's Anatomy or House?" Gomery says. "The networks certainly hope so."