Oscar statuettes are seen at the Polich Tallix foundry in Walden, N.Y., Jan. 25, 2018. CNS photo/Shannon Stapleton, Reuters
Oscar statuettes are seen at the Polich Tallix foundry in Walden, N.Y., Jan. 25, 2018. CNS photo/Shannon Stapleton, Reuters
WASHINGTON – After more than a year of upended television scheduling due to the coronavirus pandemic, things are nearly back on schedule for the schedule itself.

That is likely to be a benefit to networks and advertisers. It remains to be seen what benefit, if any, accrues to the viewer.

Just like our lives, the schedule was upended. The typical fall debut of new shows and seasons didn't come off with the usual blare of trumpets because so few series shoot episodes six months or more in advance. Even commercials changed, from their customary annoyance to touting a "we're with you" resilience and strength. That mood lasted only until it was time to plug Memorial Day sales.

Over the past year, live broadcasts pretty much disappeared. As researchers learned more about COVID-19 and how it can be transmitted – and avoided – both live programming resumed and series episodes were filmed, albeit on a different schedule with new protocols in place.

The baseball season was cut by more than 100 games. Pro basketball and hockey returned with shortened and rejiggered schedules. Pro football played its full slate of games on schedule, but all four sports dealt with delayed games as players and others close to them received positive tests for the virus.

Fans were few and far between in stadiums and arenas due to state and local restrictions on large gatherings. The games went on anyway, showing that the TV dollar was almighty – at least more almighty than tickets, concessions, parking and other revenue streams. Ratings, though, took a big dip, which remains a puzzlement, since people were pretty much stuck in their homes.

Awards shows weren't just at one venue, but two or more. And that doesn't even count the nominees, who observed physical distancing by connecting from home via Zoom or some similar service. Because release dates for movies and music were deferred in faint hopes consumers could go back to theaters and retail stores, those awards shows were similarly delayed.

The April 25 broadcast of the Academy Awards should be the last big shuffle of the current season.

To be honest, I was surprised the Oscars didn't wait one more week. Then it could have captured what likely would have been bigger numbers due to the "sweeps" month that all broadcast and cable networks anticipate. And dread.

There are three sweeps periods for prime-time programming. Each lasts four weeks. One is in November, the second is in February and the third is in May.

The sweeps "month" begins on a Thursday and ends on a Wednesday. In most cases, this means that Thanksgiving Day – a lower TV-watching day because families are looking more at each other than they are at a screen – won't skew the numbers. The same applies in May, when Memorial Day weekend and summer loom large on the horizon.

Networks load up their schedules during sweeps months with special programming, new episodes of comedies and dramas, and cliffhanger installments to keep the fans eager for the new season in the fall.

Why would they do this kamikaze-style programming against each other?

Because advertising rates are set on sweeps months' performance. That's a bit twisted, since those in-between months will feature the occasional rerun – with only 22 episodes constituting a "full season" order, you've got to dole them out carefully – and the not-that-special special.

There's also the matter of bragging rights. Which network "won" the sweep? Which network "won" the season? While the Ten Commandments instruct us not to covet our neighbor's wife or oxen, the networks covet their preferred demographic of 18- to 49-year-olds. You are allowed to be as old as 54 when it comes to being coveted for network news programming.

The younger you are, the reasoning goes, the more likely you are to be influenced by the advertising that appears during a show. Conversely, the older you are, the more your buying habits are assumed to be unpersuaded by ads. That's why you see a raffish 38-year-old driving a Cadillac, not some 68-year-old gent who may need help getting in and out of the car.

Some cable outlets – both the ad-supported and premium kind – play the sweeps game differently.

Even though the share of the broadcast networks' viewing audience continues to erode, there are so many choices in the 500-channel universe that playing by the networks' rules would likely result in fewer eyeballs watching their new or special programming. So they'll debut a new show or a new season of an existing show another month and hope that viewer interest will sustain itself during the sweeps.

TV isn't necessarily a sport, but that's how the game is played.

Pattison is media editor for Catholic News Service.