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 It's a rare network drama that stays on top as long as "Grey's Anatomy."

The series, created by Shonda Rhimes and centered on the operatic love affair between doctors Meredith Grey and Derek Shepherd, ends its 12th season tonight on ABC.

And the show is not only on track to finish as the network's top drama among advertiser-coveted 18 to 49 year olds, but as ABC's second-most-watched TV series overall this season, behind “Dancing With the Stars.”

One reason the series has endured is fans like 23-year-old Emily Pittinos, who has been watching on and off for years.

“It's sort of everyone's guilty pleasure," she said.  

Pittinos watched — secretly — in college. “I had a roommate, and I would kind of hide it from her. I would watch it late at night, or when she wasn't in the room,” Pittinos said. “And it turned out she was doing the same thing.”

They started watching together.

And now Pittinos, who’s in graduate school in a new city, is watching again.

“It's something familiar, and I feel like there are people on the show that I know,” she said.

There are legions of young people who have discovered the show on streaming services.

“People can come in, discover the show, binge on the previous 11 seasons and then catch up on season 12," said Patrick Moran, an executive vice president at ABC Studios.

In fact, according to ABC, viewing of the pilot episode has doubled in the last five years, and nearly 40 percent of viewers who streamed the show last summer started watching the show during the regular season this fall.

More current-season viewers means more ad revenue for the network. The trade publication AdAge estimates "Grey's" pulled in about $160,000 for a 30-second spot this season. Although it’s not as lucrative as say, “Scandal,” "Grey’s" rates were up from last year and the show is still a top-20 earner.

Amanda Lotz, a communication studies professor at the University of Michigan, said the streaming-to-network path is still pretty untraveled.

“We don't have that long of a history with the possibility moving audiences in this way.” She points to "Breaking Bad" as one of the earliest and  best examples of what's been called the "Netflix Effect.” “It's live audience grew from season to season, which really wasn't a phenomenon that people had seen before,” she said.

The success of shows like "Grey’s" on streaming services, and their ability to drive viewers to traditional TV as well as the increasing value of their multiseason libraries, raises a thorny question for broadcast and cable networks: “Whether they are going to continue to let Netflix be the middle man,” said Jennifer Holt, a professor in the Film and Media Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

She said many networks and cable channels have been working on their own streaming platforms, and streaming services have moved into producing their own original content.

She said Netflix's investment in original programming, such as “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black,” for example, are an indication that the service knows where things are headed.

“They see the writing on the wall that they are going to be cut out as the middle man, and they need to start branding and developing the content to survive in this marketplace,” she said.  

For now, the relationship between Netflix and broadcasters remains mutually beneficial — like friends with benefits. But don’t count on anything as long-lasting as Meredith's love for McDreamy.

 

Follow Adriene Hill at @adrienehill