HOLLYWOOD - Producer Donald P. Bellisario wasn't overly concerned last year when it became apparent that NBC wouldn't renew JAG. After all, ABC and CBS had expressed interest in the series. He had a deal with the latter a week after NBC passed.
The drama about Navy lawyers, which begins its second season Friday (9 p.m., WRDW, Channel 12), isn't the only marginally rated series to land on a different network this season. The Jeff Foxworthy Show is surviving, if not necessarily thriving, on NBC (8 p.m. Mondays, WAGT, Channel 26), and another ABC-to-NBC transfer, The Naked Truth, returns in television's most prized piece of real estate - the half-hour between Seinfeld and ER - starting Jan. 23 (9:30 p.m. Thursdays, WAGT, Channel 26).
The UPN and WB networks have demonstrated their willingness to take castaways from their more established brethren. For them, the audience loyalty and name recognition of shows such as Sister, Sister, Brotherly Love and In the House (which were developed on ABC and NBC) can't easily be duplicated by a network seen on low-rated UHF stations in much of the country.
In recent years, major networks also seem more willing to pick up series that have built at least some equity with viewers elsewhere, even if ratings were low.
Historical precedent has shown that such transplants seldom take hold. Most shows moving to another network have had only short runs, including Davis Rules (starring Jonathan Winters), Getting By (with Cindy Williams and Telma Hopkins) and the animated series The Critic. All three began on ABC before shifting to CBS, NBC and Fox, respectively.
Yet there are also instances when shows found new life, notably Baywatch, which NBC canceled in 1990. Revived in syndication, the show went on to become an international hit.
Programmers say the real key involves how well a show fits a network's profile. "You have to evaluate it first and foremost on the show and whether it meets the needs of your schedule," said NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield.
Moreover, JAG The Naked Truth and Jeff Foxworthy were perceived as having creative potential that wasn't fully tapped the first season. As a result, each has undergone significant changes, in some instances leaving little more than the general premise and star in place.
Bellisario, whose credits include Quantum Leap and Magnum, P.I., feels somewhat relieved to have JAG move to CBS in light of demands made by NBC.
The network promoted the show as a cross between A Few Good Men and Top Gun, starring onetime Melrose Place heartthrob David James Elliott as a lawyer-pilot in the Navy's Judge Advocate General (hence the nickname JAG) corps. NBC pressed for the show to hew closer to the action-oriented nature of the latter film, a difficult proposition on a weekly TV budget.
"It's going to be what it should have been," Bellisario said. "It's going to be what I wanted it to be originally."
So JAG will feature more courtroom drama, occasionally showcase the protagonist away from work and even deal with topical issues, including a timely look at sexual harassment in the military, Bellisario said. The cast has also changed, with Catherine Bell (who briefly appeared as a murder victim the first year) now playing Elliott's partner - his third in the show's brief run.
"I never felt that their heart was into the show," Bellisario said about NBC. "I've had the very opposite feeling from (entertainment President) Leslie Moonves and CBS."
According to Littlefield, while JAG's overall ratings weren't bad, it didn't attract the sort of audience NBC was after. In addition, the show ultimately didn't fit once the network decided upon a strategy of pursuing a younger audience Saturday night with a block of escapist/sci-fi shows dubbed its thrillogy, consisting of Dark Skies, The Pretender and Profiler.
These days, NBC has certainly put its heart into The Naked Truth, stealing the show from ABC after a season in which the comedy garnered so-so ratings after Grace Under Fire. Scheduling the show on Thursdays between prime time's top two shows virtually ensures that the Tea Leoni sitcom will be sampled by a huge audience.
"How does a network say `We love you?' With time periods," Littlefield said.
Both ABC and NBC believe that Leoni, whose credits include the movies Bad Boys and Flirting With Disaster, is destined for stardom but that the show's first season didn't provide a worthy showcase.
Asked why NBC wanted the show, Littlefield said: The answer is quite simple: Tea Leoni, Tea Leoni, Tea Leoni. ... It's the type of show with the type of star we wanted on this network, (and) we felt that the show had potential that hadn't been fully realized and fully marketed.
Naked Truth has several new elements this year. Cheers alumnus George Wendt bellies up to the bar as editor in chief of the tabloid magazine where Nora (Leoni) works, and her character switches from being a tabloid photographer to writing an advice column. Changes also extend behind the scenes, with producers Maya Forbes (The Larry Sanders Show) and Jay Daniel (Cybill) taking over.
Brillstein-Grey Communications, which produces both The Naked Truth and Jeff Foxworthy, angered ABC by moving the show, a decision complicated by the fact ABC is its production partner and thus has a financial stake in the program's future.
According to company chief Brad Grey, NBC's ardor for the project proved difficult to resist. "If a network doesn't have the passion for (a show), my job as a studio, if I still believe in it, is to get it renewed elsewhere," he said.
"NBC made very clear that they were passionate about the show. They clearly believed in Tea and that the show can be made to work."
Although the hope is that fans from the first season will return, producers realize many viewers will be new to the shows and must be introduced to the characters. Executives also maintain that there's little stigma associated with the audience knowing a show didn't make the cut at another network or underwent wholesale changes from the previous year.
"You just don't always come out of the box with your best show, (but) if you stay at it, if you believe in it, you'll find out if your instinct was right eventually," Grey said, adding with a laugh, "Either you'll run out of networks or you'll find out."
Unlike The Naked Truth, the revised JAG won't benefit from such a cushy time period. The show inherits a slot in which CBS has long struggled, most recently occupied by the canceled Scott Bakula series Mr. & Mrs. Smith.
Still, Bellisario has no complaints. "I'm going to get a fair shot," he said. "That's all you can ask in television anymore.
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