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‘JAG’ made TV history

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David James Elliott and Catherine Bell

David James Elliott and Catherine Bell

I don't know that anybody keeps records on this kind of stuff, but I'd bet that "JAG" leads the TV universe in at least one category — Most Episodes Produced After Cancellation.

I'm not talking about CBS's cancellation of the series, which signs off with episode No. 227 on Friday (8 p.m., Ch. 2). I'm talking about NBC's cancellation of "JAG" nine years ago.

Heck, the Peacock Network only aired 21 of the 22 episodes that were produced for it. And then-NBC president Warren Littlefield axed the show because he doubted it would survive a second season — something he told creator/executive producer Don Bellisario and the folks at Paramount early in 1996.

"They felt they could put it somewhere else," Littlefield said at the time. "We suspected it would be CBS and said, 'That's fine. Go ahead. Go do that. Maybe you will get a longer life. And maybe it can work over there.' "

At the time, NBC was riding high and Littlefield (like everyone who has run NBC since he was ousted in 1998) was more than a bit arrogant. He made no effort to hide his disdain for CBS's decision to pick up his castoff show and put it on the midseason slate for the 1996-97 season. "That, I thought, was kind of curious," Littlefield said. "But that's now their decision, not mine."

And, quite frankly, it didn't look to be a great decision at first. Airing on Friday nights, ratings were marginal and a third season was by no means assured. But CBS chieftain Leslie Moonves — who, by the way, is still running CBS years after Littlefield left NBC — stuck by the show, moved it to Tuesday and watched as it started mowing down the competition.

By the end of the 1997-98 season, "JAG" was regularly winning its time slot against competition like "Home Improvement" on ABC and "Mad About You" on NBC. Adding to NBC's pain was the fact that Littlefield had convinced Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt to return for another season of "Mad" at the then-almost-unheard-of salary of $1 million per episode, only to have the show crushed by "JAG" in the ratings.

"JAG," meanwhile, not only survived but prospered through 202 episodes after NBC canceled it. Oh, the ratings have tailed off in recent seasons. Particularly since the move to Fridays two years ago to make room for its spinoff, "NCIS," which continues to prosper on Tuesdays.

But "JAG" is one of the shows that turned CBS from a ratings doormat into a ratings powerhouse. And, while network television is a cutthroat business if ever there was one, Moonves and Co. are indeed grateful.

And, while you might argue there's some life left in the show — Bellisario even pitched a sort of "JAG: The Next Generation," with characters other than Harm (David James Elliott) and Mac (Catherine Bell) — fans are getting a well-deserved final episode to savor. An episode that will address attraction between Harm and Mac that's always sort of bubbled below the surface.

Given all the shows that leave fans hanging, that really is a big gift to viewers.

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com