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Tuesday, April 26, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Silent-running "JAG" cashiered out by CBS

The Dallas Morning News

On TV

"JAG," at 9 p.m. Friday on CBS (KIRO).

Discharged by NBC and then re-drafted by CBS, "JAG" easily ranks as prime time's longest-running military drama series.

Now, after 10 seasons and 227 episodes, it will be taps Friday night for Cmdr. Harmon "Harm" Rabb Jr. (David James Elliott), Lt. Col. Sarah "Mac" MacKenzie (Catherine Bell) and the other uniformed members of the Judge Advocate General corps.

Even CBS no longer wants a series whose viewers are mostly AARP-eligible. "JAG" creator Donald P. Bellisario, 69, recognizes and accepts this in what seems to be good humor.

"The reason 'JAG' is not coming back is purely demographic. Nothing more," he says via cellphone while driving to the Southern California set of his other military drama, "NCIS." "Our 18- to 34-year-old audience is almost nonexistent. Almost all of our viewers" — the show still averages an audience of 9.7 million a week — "are over 50. Why don't advertisers go for that group? My God, we have a lot more money than any of these kids.

"But basically, we're told that the younger demographic is going to live about three times longer. And the older you are, the harder it is to change your brand preference. So unless they're after the geriatric crowd, they're not going to advertise on 'JAG.' That's absolutely what killed it."

NBC dropped "JAG" for largely the same reason after the show's inaugural 1995-96 season. Too many coots were watching, the network said in so many words. CBS, then the network of "Diagnosis Murder," "Touched by an Angel," "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" and other "older-skewing" series, happily rescued "JAG" and gave it a Tuesday-night berth. The show returned the favor with consistently solid ratings and three finishes in prime time's yearly top 20.

This season it ranks 50th, still not bad for Friday nights. Viewers who have stayed the course will be rewarded with a "satisfying" but somewhat open-ended resolution to the unrequited Harm-Mac relationship, Bellisario says. Or as CBS puts it in a press release, "The unmistakable chemistry between them has been held at bay for professional reasons, but due to a bombshell dropped by General Cresswell (David Andrews), they are forced to face those feelings once and for all."

That's a good thing, because Elliott's Harm wasn't going to be invited back anyway had CBS given "JAG" another season. The actor's contract had expired, and "JAG" couldn't afford him anymore, Bellisario says.

"We were not going to negotiate with David because we knew what he wanted and we weren't going to pay it. David knew that because nobody approached his agent with a deal. So he did a very bright thing. He went to another network (ABC) and signed a development deal. But it's wrong to say the show was canceled because he said he was leaving."

"JAG" is hardly getting a 21-gun salute from either TV critics or CBS. Seldom seen on magazine covers or in columns, it's mostly been a submerged submarine during its 10-season run.

"It doesn't have the 'Desperate Housewives' kind of sexiness to it or anything," says Bellisario, an ex-Marine who also created "Magnum, P.I.," "Quantum Leap" and "Airwolf." "And that's fine. I set out to make what I like and I enjoy. We've been kind of under the radar for years. We just kept getting a great mass of Middle America, if you can use that term anymore.

"These are people who like the basic values of the military and former military people who have tuned in because we treat the military decently. It gave me a platform to talk about the Marine Corps and the Navy in a positive but not jingoistic way. The whole show is about crimes in the military, which is why the Navy initially didn't want to give me any cooperation."

Bellisario's "NCIS," which got "JAG's" old Tuesday slot two seasons ago, has prospered in its second season despite going against "American Idol." Starring Mark Harmon as a special agent investigating military-connected crimes, "NCIS" is averaging 13.6 million viewers, almost 2 million more than last year. Better yet, it's up 19 percent in advertiser-craved 18- to 49-year-olds.

CBS already has re-upped "NCIS" for a third season while saying goodnight to its comparatively grizzled superior officer. "JAG," over and out. In the end it lasted just as many seasons as "Friends," while attracting maybe one-millionth the publicity.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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