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'JAG' Is Alive and Well at CBS

Television: Scuttled by NBC two years ago, the naval drama has new wind in its sails. Next stop: syndication by the USA Network.

May 04, 1998|PAUL BROWNFIELD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Having dropped off NBC's radar screen two years ago, the naval drama "JAG" has resurfaced to become a consistent Tuesday night performer for CBS--a turnaround that demonstrates how a show canceled by one network can sometimes thrive on another.

The ratings for "JAG" have been anything but staggering, but the show has been steadily building, even winning its time period several times in March and April.

Last week, for instance, "JAG" attracted 14 million viewers, outpacing Fox's "World's Scariest Police Chases," a repeat episode of ABC's "Home Improvement" and an original episode of NBC's "Mad About You."

The recent success for "JAG" is tempered somewhat by the fact that its core audience tends to be older, with much of it falling outside the 18-to-49-year-old demographic that would make it a more lucrative prize for advertisers and networks.

Nevertheless, the series already has been renewed for a fourth season, and syndication rights have been sold to the USA Network, meaning "JAG" reruns will live on--full steam ahead for a show that lingered for more than two years on the margins of prime time.

Asked if there was a moral to the comeback story of "JAG," Kerry McCluggage, chairman of Paramount Television Group, which produces the series, quipped: "Yeah. Don't cancel a show."

Created by Donald P. Bellisario, the man behind "Magnum, P.I." and "Quantum Leap," "JAG" was initially pitched to the public as "Top Gun" meets "A Few Good Men"--a show about the Judge Advocate General Corps of the Navy, the office charged with investigating crimes in that branch of the military.

Bellisario says he has always wanted to focus on courtroom dramas and personalities over action. "This is not a show about hardware and guns and planes," he said.

But guns and hardware were apparently what NBC had in mind when it put the show on its schedule in the fall of 1995.

Although the show has always featured a young, attractive cast, including former "Melrose Place" hard-body David James Elliott as Lt. Cmdr. Harmon Rabb Jr., "JAG" was from the outset a troubled fit at NBC.

"When the show was on NBC, [West Coast president] Don Ohlmeyer said, 'If this is 'Top Gun' meets 'A Few Good Men,' give me more 'Top Gun.' . . . I wanted to do more stories about people," Bellisario said. "If you're going to make a hit show, you have to have good people stories."

The series never took off, and NBC canceled it at the end of its first season.

Enter CBS, whose schedule, which includes the dramas "Promised Land," "Diagnosis Murder" and "Touched by an Angel," traditionally skews to an older audience.

"It was better for us creatively than it was for [NBC], which isn't always the case for shows that jump networks," said Leslie Moonves, president of CBS Television, adding that "JAG" will probably stay in its Tuesday night slot next season.

"JAG" is certainly not the only show that has been canceled by one network and picked up by another; recent sitcoms "The Naked Truth," "The Jeff Foxworthy Show" and "Something So Right" have all hopped networks.

*

But "JAG" is notable as a show that has benefited directly from the switch to CBS--and, perhaps more important, from its move this season to Tuesday nights, where its viewership has grown 11% over last year, when the show aired Fridays.

"God knows there have been plenty of shows that tried to switch networks and failed," said McCluggage, whose company has had less success this season with the sitcoms "Clueless" and "Sister Sister," which are now on UPN and the WB, respectively, after debuting on ABC. "It's always tougher to sell something that's been rejected by someone else. But there was interest from ABC and CBS from the beginning."

Indeed, "JAG" was snapped up by CBS less than a week after becoming a free agent. Both Moonves and McCluggage point to Bellisario's track record with "Magnum" and "Quantum Leap" as a key factor in the immediate interest in "JAG."

"When people buy series, they're not looking at one piece of film, they're looking at the producer's ability to do it 22 times a year," McCluggage said.

Bellisario says he wants to continue to emphasize character over action; next week's episode, for example, revolves around the impending wedding of Lt. Bud Roberts (Patrick Labyorteaux) and Ensign Harriet Sims (Karri Turner). Other recent "JAG" episodes have explored such hot-button issues as sexual harassment and racial discrimination in the military.

Bellisario, who served four years in the Marines, can understand why networks are reluctant to go with military shows, and why the largest segment of "JAG's" audience tends to be people over 55.

"Most people under 35 in this country have never served in the military," he said. "The only knowledge they have is the brief glory moment of Operation Desert Storm and the bad memory of Vietnam."

But he insisted his show can appeal to those younger viewers who assume they can't relate to a show featuring men and women in uniform.

"We're not painting a rah-rah, wave-the-flag kind of military show. We show both sides of stories."

And of course, having a handsome leading man and a supporting cast of attractive women never hurts the package. Just ask the people at "Baywatch," a show that was canceled in 1990 by NBC before syndication turned it into the international cottage industry it is today.

* "JAG" airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on CBS (Channel 2).

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