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Turning on the Tube

The spring season is no longer a drought for new shows.

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Consequently, the other eight nonsweeps months used to be decidedly ordinary, peppered with repeats and reruns and short-lived series. The broadcast networks also used these months to dump programming it had bought but didn’t expect much from.

Then two things happened. Cable became a competitor, bringing with it scores of channels. And the ratings services began to install their equipment in people’s homes so they could know what choices we were making 24-7.

Now it’s all ratings, all the time, and there are a zillion programs to pick from and a fistful of ways to manage your viewing time — computers, VCRs, digital on-demand cable and personal hard-drive recorders such as TiVo. The significance of February, May, July and November is fading fast, and competition is becoming a year-round force.

All this is by way of explaining that there are some interesting programming choices coming up this month. There are 13 new Sunday night episodes of HBO’s “The Sopranos,” and the main focus will be Tony’s (James Gandolfini) separation from Carmela (Edie Falco). “The Shield” is back for its third season with 15 episodes on FX TV, Tuesdays at 10 p.m. Star Michael Chiklis is crossing his fingers and hoping the show will continue to be the most-watched original series on basic cable among the coveted 18-49 viewers.

One of the most interesting debuts — and odd choices — this month will be HBO’s new “Deadwood,” a 12-episode drama from executive producer David Milch (“NYPD Blue” and “Hill Street Blues”). It’s been a long dry spell since we’ve had a genuine Western series, pardner. Advance word is that “Deadwood” updates the drama with language that would push the limits even on “The Sopranos,” which ‘Deadwood” will follow on Sunday nights. What a difference an hour makes in the language that’s acceptable on pay-cable.

Fox has its eye firmly on the way the balls have bounced lately and is sucking up to the toniest new niche market with “Playing It Straight,” debuting Friday (March 12) at 8. Jackie, a college student, will have to pick from among 14 hot guys, some of whom are — gasp — more interested in each other than her. If her gaydar’s operational and she picks a straight guy, she and he will split a cool million. If she picks one of the gay dudes, he gets the whole million. The series is set on a ranch in Elko, Nev. Contestants are not allowed to take butch pills.

Two new legal dramas join the lineup this month, one on CBS and one on ABC. CBS has “Century City” from Academy Award-winner Paul Attanasio (“Homicide: Life on the Streets”) on Tuesday nights at 10 starting March 16. An ensemble of lawyers, one of whom is “genetically re-engineered,” will explore what the network calls “uncharted legal territory” that will confront society in the “not-so-distant future.” Deeply flawed personalities on the staff of the L.A. District Attorney’s office — not to mention your usual suspects — will provide fodder for “The D.A.,” premiering March 19 at 10 on ABC. Steven Weber stars as prosecutor David Franks.

Over on PBS, music buffs can choose from two dynamic and dramatically different musical specials with Rosemary Clooney and George Harrison this month. Clooney had a repertoire that embraced works by Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers, Johnny Mercer and George and Ira Gershwin. “Rosemary Clooney: Girl Singer” will air in March and showcase clips from her 1956-57 weekly TV show, most of which have never been seen since.

David Leland’s acclaimed Royal Albert Hall “Concert for George” honoring the late George Harrison premieres on television here this month. The two-hour “Great Performances” special includes songs not featured in the recent theatrical release. Among those paying tribute are Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Tom Hanks, members of Monty Python, Tom Petty, Billy Preston, Ravi and Anoushka Shankar, Ringo Starr and Harrison’s son Dhanni, who looks eerily like his dad.

All of this, just when you thought it was safe to lose the remote for a while. S

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