Viewers weaned off network TV by the lasting effects of last winter's writers' strike are being lured back this winter.
January's heavy hitters —American Idol, Lost and 24 — will return for new non-stop seasons, along with a large load of new scripted series, in what's shaping up to be the most crucial midseason in years.
The four major broadcast networks have lost nearly 3 million viewers, 7% of their average audience, since last fall, capping years of erosion as cable network viewership climbs.
Some big broadcast networks waged a low-wattage fall rollout. They tried unsuccessfully to relaunch shows cut short by the strike, and added half the usual number of new series. Only one — CBS' The Mentalist — has become a certified hit.
"Because there weren't new shows ready, you had the renewal of shows that in a regular season wouldn't have been renewed, and most of them have bitten the dust," says analyst David Scardino at Los Angeles ad firm RPA. "You're kind of seeing the fall season in February and March."
Now the networks will try to recover from the writers' strike, even as they prepare for the possibility of a new one by actors.
Several ambitious cable series are due in coming weeks, including A&E's The Beast, starring Patrick Swayze; TNT's advertising-themed Trust Me, with Tom Cavanagh and Eric McCormack; and Showtime's United States of Tara, starring Toni Collette as a woman with multiple personalities.
And FX returns with new seasons of Nip/Tuck and Damages, its most popular and most critically acclaimed shows, respectively.
For cable networks, "it's becoming more of a 52-week season," says Brad Adgate of ad firm Horizon Media. "They have been very aggressive at extending" their runs of original series.
With the notable exception of top-rated CBS, down just 1% this fall, the current TV season is one that big-network rivals would prefer to start all over again.
CBS will remain largely stable, with only one new drama in March and the return of summer drama Flashpoint next month and sitcom Rules of Engagement probably in March.
But there's upheaval elsewhere:
•NBC is stunting its way through winter with several new reality shows (Superstars of Dance), miniseries The Last Templar and XIII, the Super Bowl and the Golden Globes. Friday Night Lights returns for a 13-episode run of repeats that first aired on DirecTV last fall. And look for new drama Kings and an expanded round of Celebrity Apprentice, with two-hour episodes, in March.
•ABC, with only two newcomers last fall, plans seven new series from January to April, along with the return of Scrubs (imported from NBC), Lost and The Bachelor.
•And Fox, which always comes to life in January, is making changes on all five weeknights: Aside from the returns of Idol and 24, it's adding two new dramas next month and switching the time slots of House (to Mondays), Bones (to Thursdays) and Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles (to Fridays).
"We felt it was a year where we needed to spread out our offense, and give two shows, Fringe and Lie to Me, a chance to benefit from Idol," says Fox program planning chief Preston Beckman.
"On Tuesday night, we haven't given a new show a shot in a while" behind Idol's massive lead-in, he says. Fringe will get the chance to expand its audience there.
And Lie to Me, starring Tim Roth, is the first new drama to get the post-Idol treatment on Wednesday, which has been handed to other reality shows in the past few years.
Fox this week also gave the green light to Glee, a musical comedy about a high school glee club from Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck) that's being eyed for a post-Idol spring tryout as well. And it has a new high school animated comedy, Sit Down, Shut Up, in the wings for an April start.
For the networks, there's more potential reward than risk, analysts say. But can they draw viewers to so many new shows?
"It should be very healthy, but it's going to be a challenge in launching them all," says ABC scheduling chief Jeff Bader.
The midseason maneuvering reflects the newly available class of freshmen — delayed by the strike — and the poor performance of those untested holdovers from last season, including NBC's Lipstick Jungle and ABC's Dirty Sexy Money. (Dirty and Pushing Daisies aired their last scheduled episodes this week, with the remaining few expected next summer; Lipstick's tube runs out Jan. 9.)
But any momentum will be a welcome change from the bare cupboards faced last winter, when the supply of all but a few scripted series ran out and shows such as 24 and FX's Rescue Me were shelved entirely.
And while midseason moves for most amount to putting Band-Aids over fall failures, says Scardino, "this season it's going to be more significant."