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March Madness network-style

WITH THE FEBRUARY SWEEPS over, it’s time for TV’s March Madness — an elimination tournament destined to display lower shooting percentages than college basketball’s version.

Despite all the discussion of year-round programming and no longer being enslaved by the September-through-May season introduced along with the Gregorian calendar, TV programmers have yet to ascertain how to fill the awkward gap between the February and May sweeps.

So what we get, beginning in March, is a mad crush of new programs with their own built-in expiration date. Hit shows go into hibernation to squirrel away four “fresh” episodes for May, which actually begins in April, making about as much sense as everything else surrounding this ritual.

At the same time, new series flood the airwaves, often lacking the generous lead-in that original installments of established franchises would provide.

Take a deep breath, because here’s what’s coming our way before Passover: “Law & Order: Trial by Jury,” “The Starlet,” “The Contender,” “Blind Justice,” “Jake in Progress,” “Kelsey Grammer Presents The Sketch Show,” “The Office,” “Little House on the Prairie,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Eyes,” “Living With Fran,” “Revelations” and “Stacked.”

Oh, and that’s just on the broadcast networks, with CBS — which broadcasts the NCAA’s real March Madness — sitting out this particular dance. Throw in such cable entries as “Intervention,” “Fat Actress” and “Kojak,” along with new seasons of “Deadwood,” “The Shield” and “Project Greenlight,” and it’s hard to remember which end is up.

Granted, there’s seldom a water break at any milepost during the modern TV marathon, but these fledgling programs face the cruelest of deadlines. Networks are itchy to ensure their ratings don’t tank during May, the most significant major sweeps period, because it dictates the sale of local ad time for the longest swath of the calendar. In addition, programmers are preoccupied with readying pilots before announcing fall lineups during May’s upfront festivities, allowing scant latitude for exercising patience with these spring flings.

As a consequence, series have only the briefest window to impress execs before winding up on the scrap heap, pushed aside by the untested promise of prototypes that have yet to squander promo time during the Oscars or Super Bowl.

This doesn’t suggest networks should hang out the “Gone fishin’ ” sign in March and April; in fact, the idea of premiering “American Idol,” “24” and “Alias” in January and running them straight into May has brought welcome zest to the spring.

Nevertheless, the pattern of essentially benching such stalwarts as “ER” and “Smallville” until daylight-saving time begins, in this day and age, can’t really make sense to anyone lacking the access number to NBC’s ratings hotline.

Let’s not forget that Fox’s “There is no TV season anymore” strategy fell flat before “Idol” worship jumpstarted the network, just as NBC’s early post-Olympic premieres of the series “Father of the Pride” and “Hawaii” didn’t forestall their extinction. In fact, it was “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “CSI: New York” — which all washed ashore in the fall, just like the old days — that yielded the biggest splash.

With any luck, a few of these spring tryouts will survive their chaotic birth, since some based on creative merit some appear to deserve a second chance. Still, the competitive reality suggests that just like that other tournament, most will get sent home early, with no chants of “Wait till next year” to console them.

* * *

Reason to love “The Daily Show,” No. 237: When Oscar winner Hilary Swank’s acceptance speech acknowledged her “best friend and publicist,” Jon Stewart deadpanned, “Your best friend is someone you pay to say nice things about you to other people.”

Despite coming dangerously close to overexposure during the summer — including a critics’ award for news program, even though it’s fake — anyone who feared “The Daily Show” might lose its spark or edge once the election hijinks concluded needn’t worry. In Los Angeles, anyway, the satirical program has become a tonic to ease the absurdity of local news, where some broadcasts have seemingly fought back by devolving further into near-camp.

With the hype subsiding after news outlets sought to prove how “cool” they were by cozying up to him, Stewart can return to spotlighting excesses by both the media and public figures that receive short shrift in other TV venues, except perhaps PBS’ “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.”

By the way, as flattering as these observations are, I’m not Stewart’s publicist and didn’t get paid a thing for making them.

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