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Different Time, Place for ‘Davis Rules’ : Television: Jonathan Winters and Randy Quaid’s promising sitcom leaves ABC to find a new life on CBS tonight.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Remember roughly this time a year ago, when ABC captured Jonathan Winters and returned him from the wild to co-star with Randy Quaid in the sitcom “Davis Rules,” which premiered mid-season to big numbers after last year’s Super Bowl?

Well, this year the Super Bowl has moved to CBS and, as fortune would have it, so has “Davis Rules,” which “previews” tonight at 8 before moving to its regular time slot Wednesday at 8 as the lead-in for “Brooklyn Bridge.”

Playing network hopscotch is nothing new for TV series. “Father Knows Best,” which saw life on all three networks, was revived on NBC in 1955 after CBS canceled the series after one season because of low ratings.

More recently, several shows have been picked up by other networks hoping to extend the life of a successful series. “Taxi” moved from ABC to NBC in 1982 after four seasons, and “The Hogan Family” switched to CBS in the fall of last year after five seasons--in various forms--on NBC.

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“Those were shows that were, in all deference to the shows, at the end of their life cycles,” said Peter Tortorici, senior vice president of programming at CBS, which canceled “The Hogan Family” last year. “They had been on networks for years and were on the borderline of cancellation or pickup. (“Davis Rules”) is a show that’s very, very early in its creative life.”

In a hopscotching phenomenon spurred on by a depressed economy, such low-rated series as CBS’ “Charles in Charge,” NBC’s “Silver Spoons,” “Baywatch,” “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd” and “Fame,” and Fox’s “21 Jump Street” continued in production as syndicated series or on cable after leaving the network. Syndicated series, which bypass the networks and are sold directly to TV stations, are usually produced for less money and often yield higher profits for producers.

“Davis Rules,” however, is neither a ratings flop nor a series in its twilight years.

Last season, the sitcom ranked No. 30 out of 141 network programs, making it the season’s highest-rated new comedy series--helped substantially, no doubt, by “Doogie Howser” as a lead-in. To the delight of the TV industry, the veteran Winters, at 66, won his first Emmy in August for best supporting actor in a comedy series for his spinning-top portrayal of Gunny Davis, grandfather to his widowed son’s three boys.

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Despite those solid credentials, however, “Davis Rules” was left off ABC’s fall schedule three months ago and hasn’t been seen since, even though the network promised it would return. With an inordinate number of comedy series on the air this season involving series commitments to producers, the network couldn’t find room on its schedule.

“They were just taking their time and looking for the best slot,” said Karyn Mandabach, president of the Carsey-Werner Co., which had already produced an additional 13 episodes of “Davis Rules.” “Jonathan Winters had just won the Emmy and we were anxious to get on the air.

“ABC’s intentions were good, and they were going to give it a good shot, I believe. They just had a lot of really good shows waiting in the wings. It occurred to us that they have solid suppliers, and they were just trying to please a lot of masters. At the same time, there seemed to be movement at NBC, CBS and Fox.”

Carsey-Werner was alerted to some holes in CBS’ schedule that emerged after the death of Redd Foxx, who starred in the brand-new CBS sitcom “The Royal Family.” So in an unusual move, Carsey-Werner privately asked ABC if “Davis Rules” could be shopped to another network.

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ABC’s announcement to relinquish “Davis Rules” in November came as a surprise to the TV community--including a programming source at ABC, who believed that “Davis Rules” was “on hiatus being retooled.”

ABC has not disclosed the reasons behind its decision. A press release from ABC Entertainment President Robert Iger simply said: “The Carsey-Werner Co. requested that we release them from all obligations to ABC on ‘Davis Rules,’ and we have accommodated that request.”

Some have ascribed the series of events to the deal-making abilities of Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, the producing powers behind such network hits as “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World.” There has been speculation that Carsey-Werner will produce another series for ABC in exchange for giving up “Davis Rules,” although neither side would confirm that.

“Davis Rules” is coming to CBS with few creative changes, with the exception of a new minor cast member. A young actor named Vonnie Robisi has been added to the family as a sort of temporary live-in.

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“This show is in the beginning of its creative life,” Mandabach said. “And I find that TV series plump when you cook them, and they only get better and better. ‘Davis Rules’ did really well the last time it was on. It’s not as if its star was fading, it was just coming up.”


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