`JAG' ends long run while still a favorite

April 29, 2005|By Tom Jicha | Tom Jicha,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

The military drama JAG epitomizes the disconnect between Hollywood and Middle America. The show ends its 227-episode run tonight still a fan favorite and a pariah in the industry.

Despite surviving 10 seasons, the series and its actors have never been even nominated for an Emmy.

Emmys don't keep series on the air for a decade; ratings do, so creator-executive producer Donald P. Bellisario said he took the snubs from his peers in stride. "Hollywood is a very liberal community that doesn't have a great affinity for the military. At first, it was a bit irritating, but you get used to it."

JAG has always been a red-state show. "It does great in Middle America," Bellisario said. "The Northeast and major cities are not as strong."

If not for Bellisario's hit-maker reputation from Magnum, P.I. and Quantum Leap, JAG probably would never have made it onto the air. As it was, NBC tried to change almost everything about Bellisario's vision. The network scotched his choice of Andrea Parker as the female lead.

"They wanted a blonde with more sex appeal," he said. "They also wanted a lot more action."

Even though JAG was a steady, if not spectacular, ratings producer, NBC dropped it after one season. Bellisario finds it amusing that NBC replaced his series with The Pretender - with Parker as the female lead.

Bellisario learned of the cancellation by NBC in a curious way: He got calls from ABC and CBS, who were interested in picking up the show. ABC offered a possible Monday slot after football season. CBS tendered a definite 13-episode commitment.

Bellisario went for the sure thing. By the time NBC notified him he was canceled, his series already had a new home, he said. Better yet, CBS gave him free rein to do the show as he saw fit.

Nine years later, financial rather than creative or Nielsen considerations are finally bringing an end to the series. Bellisario has known since the start of this season that his star, David James Elliott, would not be back as Harm Rabb Jr. His contract was up and the show couldn't afford the raise he was seeking.

USA and Hallmark, which own the cable rerun rights, were committed to buying only the first 10 seasons. Without the back-end money from syndication, new episodes would result in a substantial loss, according to Bellisario.

CBS discussed ways to create a less-expensive show. One possibility had Catherine Bell's Mac Mackenzie operating solo out of a JAG office in San Diego. Costs were still an issue and neither party was thrilled with the potential for such a show anyway.

While JAG's ratings are still equal or superior to some series that will be coming back, they are not what they used to be, a normal situation among series that have been on as long as JAG. Moreover, the audience tends to skew beyond the age groups Madison Avenue courts.

"I don't find a lot of interest toward the military among young people," said Bellisario, a 69-year-old former Marine. "It comes from people who grew up with the military."

As the end approaches, the big issue for fans is whether Harm and Mac finally act on the sexual tension that has been a teasing backdrop. Bellisario doesn't want to give anything away but he says, "I think all the fans will be satisfied."

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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