What if NBC didn’t cancel ‘JAG’ after one season?

This week HitFix is revisiting some of the key turning points in recent entertainment history and considering what would have happened if history had turned a bit differently. What if…?

In the spring of 1996, NBC was at the peak of its Must-See TV period. “Seinfeld,” “ER,” “Friends,” “Frasier” and “Law & Order” were  healthy and powerful, and there was a successful secondary tier of shows like “Wings,” “Mad About You” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” The previous fall, the network had launched a new drama called “JAG,” starring David James Elliott as a Naval officer and attorney who traveled the globe having adventures and defending sailors in court. By today’s standards, “JAG” – which averaged 11.6 million viewers a week, despite airing on Saturday – would be a big hit, but that year it was the #79 show on TV overall, and its audience was on the old side, at a time when “Friends” and its imitators were pushing NBC ever-younger. The Peacock canceled “JAG,” and CBS – which was in such dire straits that the network was happy to take any viewers, of any age – picked it up for the next spring. It would air 205 episodes over nine seasons for CBS, never a massive hit but a reliable performer and foundational piece as CBS dug itself out of a gaping hole. More importantly, when “JAG” was in its later years, the show’s creator Don Bellisario pitched a spin-off to CBS about the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, aka “NCIS,” which is entering its 11th season, is the most-watched drama on television and has spawned yet another successful spin-off in “NCIS: LA.”

What if NBC didn’t cancel ‘JAG’ after one season? 

Three things that might not have happened:
1. On a most immediate level, Tracey Needham (who had been introduced as Elliott’s partner after the pilot because NBC executives wanted a blonde, and who was dumped in season 2 because CBS executives wanted his partner to be more of a peer than a protege) might not have been replaced, and Catherine Bell might not have been added to the regular cast. (Though she did appear in a first season episode that NBC never aired, playing a different character.)

2. CBS wouldn’t have acquired “JAG” – even if NBC had canceled it after only two seasons, CBS might have looked on it as damaged goods rather than a relatively unknown commodity that NBC didn’t know what to do with – and therefore likely wouldn’t have had access to “NCIS” or “NCIS: LA.”

3. Without the “NCIS” franchise to pick up the slack from the aging “CSI” shows, CBS might not have finally finished on top of the season race among adults 18-49 for 2012-13, though the network would still be in decent shape thanks to its comedies.

Three things we predict might have happened:

1. It depends on how long NBC kept “JAG” on the air. If canceled after two seasons, maybe Bellisario retires, or at least has greater difficulty selling shows at an advanced age in a business focusing increasingly on youth. But if NBC had left it on Saturdays (or put it on Fridays, as CBS did for a long time) and accepted it as a show with a low ceiling but a high floor, it could have run for at least six or seven years, until the point when CBS introduced “CSI” and Bellisario might have been able to say to his NBC bosses, “I can give you a show like that.”

2. Having “NCIS” (and perhaps “NCIS: LA”) wouldn’t have fixed NBC’s problem in the ’00s of developing sitcom successors for “Friends,” “Will & Grace,” et al, but it might have prevented the utter collapse of the network into its current, perhaps irreparable state. (If “The Jay Leno Show” is still a thing in this universe, it certainly does not air five nights a week.)

3. Having three “Law & Order”s and two “NCIS”es might have created a more stable foundation on which to schedule and promote mid-’00s NBC series like “Friday Night Lights,” “Chuck,” “30 Rock,” “Parks and Recreation,” etc. Then again, perhaps those shows would never have gotten bigger audiences than they did in our reality, and would have been canceled much more quickly by a healthy Peacock.

Did history work out for the best?

Yes. Both “JAG” and “NCIS” were much better fits for CBS than they would’ve been for NBC, whether in the Must-See TV glory days or the catastrophic mid-’00s. It’s hard to imagine “JAG” running nearly as long, and perhaps “NCIS” existing at all, in this altered timeline. And TV is a more fun place with “NCIS” in it.