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Inside Move: Eye’s ‘Jag’ clings to life

Snarky thesp ballots in mail

One of the first decisions Leslie Moonves made when he came to CBS was to pick up “JAG” from NBC, which had canceled the military drama because it didn’t skew young. Now, almost a decade later, Moonves will soon have to decide whether to say goodbye to the show.

Speculation about the skein’s future is heating up as the season heads into the homestretch, particularly in the wake of news Thursday that series David James Elliott has inked a talent holding deal with ABC and Touchstone Television. His “JAG” deal was set to expire in May.

While there’s been some industry scuttlebutt suggesting CBS may be ready to serve up a final salute, series creator Donald Bellisario — as well as producer Paramount Network TV — are working overtime to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Later this month, former “As the World Turns” hunk Chris Beetem will join the show’s cast as a brash new lawyer who shakes up the “JAG” team — and, with Elliott potentially exiting, Beetem could fill Elliott’s spot. Two other recurring characters have also been added in recent months.

What’s more, execs at Par are actively looking at other ways to keep the franchise vital, much the way NBC has kept “Law & Order” a hit for over a decade.

Bellisario has already reinvented “JAG” several times during its two-net run. Spinoff “NCIS,” meanwhile, is a major hit on Tuesday nights.

Ratingswise, “JAG” is doing OK numbers on Friday night — no thanks to lead-in “Joan of Arcadia,” which has taken a major dive this season. And while it’s more expensive than a younger show, insiders suggest budget concerns won’t be a key part of the Eye’s decision.

In the end, it’s expected Moonves will hold off making a decision until May, when he and CBS Entertainment prexy Nina Tassler look at all of the net’s new development and weigh it against “JAG’s” creative performance and ratings.

CBS and Par declined comment.

ABC and Touchstone confirmed the Elliott deal late Thursday and said the one-year pact calls for the actor to co-produce any projects he stars in.

* * *

Behold, Hollywood: The SAG-AFTRA referendum ballot, in all its bitchy glory.

As only actors can, opposing sides of SAG squared off in starkly opposed pro and con statements to be included with all upcoming SAG/AFTRA contract vote ballots.

“They even accuse us of creating that tsunami,” said one SAG wag backing the proposed deal.

Well, not quite.

But Membership First’s con statement does call the pact “too little, too soon” and accuses SAG and AFTRA leaders of having “lost all credibility” for not demanding hikes in theatrical DVD residuals. It decries the unions’ proposed across-the-board increases in minimum wages “the lowest ever” when compared with the rising cost of living in New York and Los Angeles. And it berates the proposed contract’s concession of forsaking residuals on the reairing of a primetime scripted show’s pilot and first two episodes.

The con statement asserts that a no vote won’t authorize a strike; instead, it “empowers our negotiators to go back to the bargaining table.”

On the pro side, the two union prexys, Melissa Gilbert and John Connolly, defend their decision to forsake primetime residuals on the first three episodes of new, scripted shows as a “short term sacrifice … necessary for long-term gain” and insist that “the continued growth of reality TV represents the real ‘rollback.’ ”

SAG and AFTRA’s elected leadership also defend making the deal with producers now, five months before the contract’s expiration: “Our maximum leverage in bargaining is now. Our window of opportunity is when producers want to avoid preparing for a strike by stockpiling product and ramping up reality programming — not when they have already done so. Our timing was part of a carefully considered strategy geared to the way the industry operates today.”

Ballots will be mailed Monday to the 140,000 members of the two unions; those holding dual membership only get one vote.

— Claude Brodesser and Dave McNary

* * *

PARIS — Companies often find themselves issuing denials over deals that are in the works.

But the source of the offending story is rarely the company’s own boss.

On Thursday, France’s Lagardere Group found itself backpedaling furiously after topper Arnaud Lagardere boasted of his intention to fork out up to $1.3 billion for a stake in the Canal Plus Group, owned by Vivendi Universal.

Asked if a deal was soon in the offing, Lagardere told French business weekly Le Nouvel Economiste: “Yes, we are going to take 34% of the Canal Plus Group” for between $650 million to $1.3 billion plus Lagardere’s existing 34% stake in the paybox’s digital platform Canal Satellite.

He added that Lagardere would ultimately like to own all of the paybox “over the next five to 10 years.”

Before the magazine had time to hit newsstands Friday morning, corporate flacks bombarded newsrooms with this curt statement: “The Lagardere group formally denies having concluded a deal with Canal Plus and wishes to make it clear that proper negotiations concerning an eventual agreement have yet to begin.”

— Alison James

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