CBS' JAG pulls rank, recruiting patriotic viewers.

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November 09, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

In troubled times, American couch potatoes have turned to familiar television fare for solace. In its eighth season, for example, NBC’s beloved Friends is off to its best start in years — as is CBS’ six-year-old Everybody Loves Raymond. And then there’s JAG. This fall, CBS’ square-as-a-semaphore military drama has shown a surprising resurgence. Jag’s Sept. 25 season premiere snagged the second-highest ratings in its seven-year history and registered a 39 percent bump in the coveted 18-49 demographic over last year’s. Plus, it repeatedly wins its Tuesday time slot, even beating Fox’s hip college sitcom Undeclared.

Why are viewers giving JAG an 18-share salute? Executive producer and creator Donald Bellisario credits the national wave of patriotism for part of the show’s new strength. ”People are tuning in to get some insight into what the military is all about,” he says. ”We show the positive and the negative, but we also give respect to those officers who lay it on the line.” Lead actor David James Elliott, who portrays hunky lawyer Cmdr. Harmon Rabb in the Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s office, agrees. ”In the past, people thought the show was all about the military and just decided that they didn’t like it,” says Elliott. ”The fact that we’re feeling more favorably about our military can only help.”

In fact, the Navy-supported series does seem to be benefiting from the current flag-waving mood. Unlike such CIA-backed shows as CBS’ The Agency and ABC’s Alias, which have shown disappointing ratings to date despite heavy promotion. ”The irony is that the show hasn’t changed,” says JAG coexecutive producer and head writer Stephen Zito. ”People have just figured out that we’re here and they like what they’re seeing.”

It wasn’t always this easy. JAG debuted in 1995 on NBC, but was canceled after only a year. The series was picked up as a midseason replacement by then-third-place CBS, where it enjoyed solid ratings — except for last season’s stint against ABC’s then-hot Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

Despite its success, the show has flown under the media radar. Bellisario recalls that a Nielsen chart in The Hollywood Reporter once shaded NBC’s Mad About You as the ratings winner in the time slot — though JAG posted better numbers that week. And he blames the ongoing lack of coverage on a mix of history and politics: ”The media’s image of the military is probably left over from Vietnam. They assumed the show was jingoistic.” So what changed their minds? ”September 11 made the difference,” he says. ”I’m suddenly doing interviews every day.”

Now a fixture in the top 10, JAG faces the new challenge of depicting military life in the midst of a real-life war. ”Changes had to be made,” says Zito. ”After 9/11, life is real serious.” As a result, producers have toned down lighthearted stories — like a comedic visit from the number-crunching inspector general — and temporarily shelved a prospective romance between Elliott’s Harmon and Lieut. Col. Sarah ”Mac” MacKenzie (Catherine Bell).

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