Battlefield Promotion

  • If war upsets balances of power, it can also upset the balance of cool. On Sept. 10, fire fighters were not exactly at the epicenter of hip. Foreign news? Puh-leeze! Spying, learning Arabic, worrying about the public-health system? Uncool, uncool, uncool.

    And by all prevailing standards the CBS military drama JAG (Tuesdays, 8 p.m. E.T.) was about the least-cool hit show on TV. It lauded the men and women of the Judge Advocate General corps, who investigate, prosecute and defend cases affecting military conduct. The twist was--well, that there was no twist. On JAG, the government really was good, save for a few bad apples. There were no systemic conspiracies. It was made with the cooperation of the Navy and the Marines. Its heroes, Lieut. Commander Harmon (Harm) Rabb Jr. (David James Elliott) and Lieut. Colonel Sarah (Mac) MacKenzie (Catherine Bell), were truth seekers, devoted to honor, duty and country. They could be partners or adversaries, and maintained an unresolved sexual tension. (Their dynamic made the show a kind of X-Files for people who trust authority.) He was a buff-bodied flying ace who packed a gun, a straight-arrow defense lawyer without the moral ambiguity of his counterparts on The Practice. She was a legal babe who didn't wear micro-minis or have sex with random men in car washes a la Ally McBeal.

    In other words, watching JAG was like signing up for a permanent hitch in the Square Force. But now, suddenly, American flags are stitched into the logos of news broadcasts and the nation is abuzz about, of all things, the military justice system. As creator and executive producer Don Bellisario likes to say, "JAG didn't find its patriotism on Sept. 11." But America's renewed national pride has evidently found JAG. Ratings for the show, once known for appealing mainly to older viewers steeped in old-timey values, are up 39% this fall among 18-to-49-year-olds, and it has become a recurring fixture in the top 10. "JAG gives you permission to be patriotic," says CBS television president Leslie Moonves, "and everyone wants that."

    They didn't always. Bellisario (Magnum, P.I.; Quantum Leap) conceived the drama as "Top Gun meets A Few Good Men" and sold it to NBC, where it debuted in 1995. But in 1995-96, its first season on the network of Seinfeldian cool, JAG finished 77th in the ratings. nbc wanted more shootouts and hardware; Bellisario wanted to retain the legal drama. The show was headed for a dishonorable discharge when Moonves, seeing a good fit for his network's older audience, snapped it up, rolling gunslinging action and courtroom drama into one star-spangled package.

    JAG rose through the ranks, cracking the top 20 by 1998. But it attracted relatively little media attention compared with less widely watched but trendier contemporaries like Sex and the City. Why? There is the slight hitch that, by most critics' measures, it's never been very good. Rip off the epaulets and you've got one more lawyer/cop show, with flat characters and dialogue and extra rations of melodrama. But critical contempt didn't exactly keep Fear Factor and the XFL out of the headlines. JAG simply embarrassed post-Vietnam tastemakers, according to Bellisario. "In Hollywood and in most of the media, the military was spoken of in pejorative terms," he says. "Now people have a lot of curiosity about the military. It always changes when the country is in trouble and we need someone to protect our ass."

    That's a cry straight out of Kipling--"For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' 'Chuck him out, the brute!'/But it's 'Saviour of 'is country' when the guns begin to shoot!"--and the U.S. is Kipling country now. But patriotism aside, another post-Sept. 11 trend is working for JAG. Across the dial, viewers have been flocking to established shows and familiar faces. Last Monday, a Carol Burnett retrospective on CBS stunned the industry by becoming the fourth highest rated broadcast of the season, drawing 30 million viewers, nearly 13 million of them adults under 50, to watch clips of a decades-old variety show. (Presumably, someone at NBC is now trolling the vaults for old Flip Wilson tapes.) The biggest rating coups of the season have gone to years-old shows: Friends, now in its eighth season, swooned last year against Survivor, but this fall popped to the No. 1 spot for several weeks, and Everybody Loves Raymond, which debuted in 1996, recently grabbed the weekly top spot for the first time. Meanwhile, even the most buzzworthy fall premieres--Alias, 24, Undeclared--have done O.K. at best.

    Explanations in the industry range from the practical to the philosophical. Moonves sees a nation reaching for a visual security blanket: "People want to settle in with what they are comfortable with." But NBC entertainment president Jeff Zucker points out that the attacks monopolized the country's focus all fall, leaving little attention for new-show promotions. "All of us were hugging and holding on to our loved ones and thinking how to protect ourselves," he says. "We didn't have time for new faces on television."

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