‘Rules’ finally gets a shot

Four-year old CBS comedy scheduled for fall

One of the biggest winners in last week’s upfront frenzy was a four-year-old show that many people in the biz often forget is still on the air: CBS’ “Rules of Engagement.”

The Sony Pictures TV/CBS TV Studios couples comedy from Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison shingle has been a sturdy utility player for the Eye since its debut in February 2007. But it’s never had the benefit of a slot on the fall sked, or a full 22-episode season order — until now.

CBS’ decision to keep “Rules” in the Monday 8:30 p.m. hammock slot between “How I Met Your Mother” and “Two and a Half Men” this fall is a victory for Sony Pictures TV because the order allows the studio to take advantage of the heat in the cable market for off-network sitcoms. The past history of “Rules” getting short orders and midseason runs in time slots that varied all over the Eye’s sked made it a much tougher sell in syndication. But for its fifth season, “Rules” can count on consistent scheduling in the fall starting lineup and a whole-hog season order.

“After doing yeoman’s work for us for so many years, we saw that it was finally time to give them their fair shot at starting the season,” said Kelly Kahl, CBS’ senior exec veep of primetime and its skedding guru.

In the past, “Rules” had served as something of a sitcom insurance policy for the Eye. The show had drawn consistent auds wherever it landed on the sked, which encouraged CBS execs to keep it in reserve to shore up inevitable weak spots. The laffer stars Patrick Warburton, David Spade, Megyn Price and Oliver Hudson as couples in various stages of their relationships.

“It was always the piece we knew we had in our back pockets,” Kahl said. “It may not have been comforting to the producers, but was comforting to us. When something didn’t work, it was always nice to have ‘Rules’ to bring in.”

Earlier this year, Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht, Sony Pictures TV presidents of programming and production, and “Rules” creator/exec producer Tom Hertz went to CBS with an extensive presentation on the show’s track record in the hopes of convincing the Eye to give it a good midseason opportunity to shine. They emphasized the creative evolution of the show and the big-funny potential of a new character played by Adhir Kalyan (“Aliens in America”).

With frosh Monday laffer “Accidentally on Purpose” flagging, CBS called up “Rules” for the Monday 8:30 p.m. slot starting March 1. From the start, the show held 90%-100% of its “HIMYM” lead-in, and its demo numbers have improved during its 13-episode run.

Still, Van Amburg and Erlicht were sweating it out on the afternoon of May 18, when the word spread that CBS was doing a major purge, cancelling seven series to make room for newcomers on its fall 2010 sked (Daily Variety, May 19). The two execs were sitting with a top TV agent in the lobby of Manhattan’s Four Seasons hotel, gathering intel via email and cell phone calls and holding their breath regarding the fate of “Rules.”

Not long afterward, Van Amburg and Erlicht received a call from CBS Entertainment prexy Nina Tassler, who delivered the good news about the Eye’s plan for “Rules.”

“Nina and (CBS chief) Les Moonves couldn’t have been bigger champions of the show,” Van Amburg said. “It was one of those moments where you feel like the network and the studio are truly partners.” There was so much joy and happiness when Nina told us ‘We’re protecting the show and we’re expecting you guys to go the distance.’ ”

Erlicht calls rules “the most under-appreciated hit on television. and with the new-found consistency, it should get the continued ratings growth and acclaim it deserves.”

The happy ending for “Rules” also dovetailed nicely with Sony Pictures TV’s concerted effort to field a few new comedies this development season. The studio landed two new laffers on ABC — Matthew Perry starrer “Mr. Sunshine” and couples comedy “Happy Endings” — and it may nab at least one more midseason order in the coming weeks.

The studio went full-bore into comedy development this year after a strategic study commissioned from an outside research org highlighted the dearth of strong off-network comedies as a major market opportunity for the TV wing, which is challenged compared to most of its studio competitors in that it does not count a major broadcaster or cable outlet as a corporate sibling. With the fall score for “Rules,” Sony Pictures TV will be a contender in that off-network market sooner rather than later.

It may have taken five seasons, but “we finally earned our slot, and a new level of respect,” Van Amburg said.

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