Thank God the writers' strike is over. That's what viewers of US TV programs and hosts of the myriad interview shows must be saying now that the work dispute has finally been resolved, because what passed for TV during its duration was, well - less than Emmy-quality. Left without the benefit of their writers, the interview shows were hardest hit, though they struggled mightily to stay afloat, with Jay Leno even earning accolades for keeping the zingers coming. But a recent episode of Ellen, the US daytime interview program hosted by likeable comedienne Ellen DeGeneres and now airing on Xtra HOT (10:15, 13:10 and 17:01), showed just how far the hosts had to go to keep things afloat. DeGeneres, whose program has already won several daytime Emmy Awards and who takes a very non-traditional approach to her program, was left without much of an opening monologue, if any, relying instead on mentioning how excited she was that the New York Giants won the Super Bowl - so she immediately had us as a fan. But besides pantomiming football players patting each other on the butt and lip-synching to Olivia Newton-John's "Let's Get Physical," DeGeneres had no writers to provide material. Lucky for her the hyped-up audience didn't give a hoot what she said so long as there was a chance to get free prizes, something that's become a regular feature on such programs. So it was that participants in The Marshmallow Game - stolen from Japanese TV and featuring contestants trying to mouth a swinging marshmallow with their teeth and tongues while restrained by a cord around their noses - walked away with cameras or X-Box games, and promises that viewers could actually win a car if they continued to tune in all week. We've always had a warm spot for DeGeneres, whether she be hosting the Oscars or lending her voice to an animated fish, and at least her staff helped out, tracking down a ridiculous video for a product called a "tiddy bear" featuring a little Yogi-like creature that fits onto your seatbelt strap in a rather risquÃ© spot that was good for a laugh whenever the name was brought up. "Who wouldn't love a good Tiddy Bear" asked Ellen, and the audience cackled. With the writers gone, animal acts were all the rage during the strike, with Jungle Jack Hanna turning up on many of the talk shows, including here. Hanna, who talks a mile a minute and appears to be part aardvark himself, followed a videotape Ellen made in 1985 in which she attempted to explain how to cook a turkey, a bizarre effort that got thrown into the mix as filler, without much success. More home video and home snapshots of Ellen were promised. "We'll keep showing you more, depending on how long the writers' strike lasts," said DeGeneres, sounding slightly embarrassed. Next we got some animal Web videos, including a cute one of a cat carrying a dustbuster, and Hanna, who brought along a baby camel, some Bengal tiger cubs and a couple of other critters. While DeGeneres did her best to laugh it up with the furry visitors, she wasn't even close to the talent once shown by the late, great Johnny Carson, whose visits from Joan Embry of the San Diego Zoo were classic. DeGeneres didn't exactly dig deeply in her interview with skateboarder Ryan Sheckler, who actually has his own MTV program called Life with Ryan, if you care, but then hey - he's a teen skateboarder. We're not sure even the writers could've saved that one. The highlight of the program turned out to be a picture of assertively gay Ellen with her junior prom beau, Roger, far more interesting than Hanna's hawk flying across the studio and almost taking the head off someone in the audience. We've seen other examples of Ellen which were far better, so it's unfair to shoot down Xtra HOT' s decision to add her show to its schedule, along with the welcome return of Late Night With David Letterman. We can only hope that the writers' return will provide the necessary Rx to make this prescription for a sagging schedule prove to be just what the doctor ordered.