How Rules of Engagement Manages to Survive as TV's Stealth Hit
Rules of Engagement
In TV, there are hits and misses — and then there's Rules of Engagement. The CBS comedy, which recently launched its sixth season, joins a long line of series (Becker, Just Shoot Me, According to Jim) that cheated death for years despite operating below everyone's radar.
Rules has been a solid performer for CBS, but it wasn't until last year, the show's fifth, that it aired for a full season. "It's been a bumpy road from the beginning," says star Patrick Warburton. "[We've] never been the flavor of the month. It's tough when friends and family call and ask when your show's on, and I have to tell them, 'I'll let you know when I find out.'" Adds Sony TV's Kim Rozenfeld: "It's a testament to the strength of the show that it can take that kind of beating."
In some ways, Rules has been a victim of its own mild success and CBS' limited comedy shelf space. The show was a solid midseason entry for CBS in 2007, but lost its momentum the following year when the Writers' Guild strike cut its episodic order. The year after that, Rules narrowly escaped cancellation, pulling off a 13-episode order.
But once CBS realized that Rules was a self- starter that could pop up almost anywhere and attract a solid audience, it became a useful backup — and kept defying the odds, entering CBS' May schedule announcement on the bubble yet always managing a return engagement. "As a network there's nothing better than knowing you have a go-to player that you can call on at any time," says CBS scheduling chief Kelly Kahl. "It's an incredible luxury and a testament to the show."
That means Rules is too valuable to cancel, but not valuable enough to earn a regular time slot. "They know Rules is not a big hit, they've made sure of that," says exec producer Tom Hertz. "Imagine if we were on consistently." Unlike CBS' other signature comedies, Rules has never stayed in one place for long — and as a result, doesn't have a permanent address that might otherwise stick in viewers' minds. (Adding to the confusion: CBS TV Studios co-produces Rules with Sony TV and in success, stands to gain from the show's potentially lucrative backend.)
Says Warburton: " You wonder what the general perception is of your show. We've got fans that love the show to death and show up every week, and that's why we get the consistent numbers we get. Our ratings aren't through the roof but at the same time, we perform better than any other show that has been in our spot. And that's without a lot of support."
That's a common refrain for the producers, stars and studio behind Rules. This year, the show was originally slated on Saturdays. "My first response was to laugh," Hertz says. "We were assuming we'd be on 8:30 Thursdays, because we did nicely last year. We even shot 26 episodes last year, in case there were more Two and a Half Men problems. In a perfect world you would get rewarded for this. But you don't. It's show business, not show friends. They'd rather push aside a solid show in a quest to get a massive hit, which they need."
This year, CBS needed that Thursday timeslot to try out a new show — How to Be a Gentleman. (The year before, the network used that same plum post-Big Bang Theory slot to launch the doomed $#*! My Dad Says.) At the same time, Rules had at least earned enough goodwill to finally score a berth on the fall schedule.
But with no other available time slots, the network decided to experiment with comedy in the Saturday 8 p.m. hour (where it had been running drama repeats in recent years). "It's a gut punch every time something bad happens," Hertz says. "It was less so for me with Saturday night because it was at least in the fall and it was a full season and I knew we were in the wings for something else."
Warburton was also not pleased with the Saturday downgrade — where his show was going to be surrounded by comedy and drama repeats — and wasn't shy about it. "What a sh-- time slot," Warburton told TV Guide Magazine in September. "The scripts are great and we're having a lot of fun doing the show, but God knows if anybody's gonna find us on Saturday night." Warburton still stands behind the comments, which he made on the red carpet at Comedy Central's Roast of Charlie Sheen.
Afterward, Warburton says "[CBS] didn't call me personally, but I did get a call from my publicist, and she was laughing. Saturday night is not a good place to be, that's not a secret. I wasn't pleased."
Warburton's and the show's luck eventually turned around, but at the expense of yet another failed sitcom. Rules' debut was first moved back a week after How to Be a Gentleman failed to impress in its open. After a subsequent Gentleman episode also fizzled, Rules was slid into that 8:30 p.m. Thursday slot, where it's now averaging more than 11 million viewers.
"I'm always happy to be there to take over when something stumbles," Hertz quips. "As I see it, my show's success and solid ratings allow CBS to trot out failure after failure in a quest to find a show that's better than mine."
Rozenfeld says he usually manages to soothe Hertz's nerves by mentioning the show's impending syndication sales. "Look at Rules' retention of Big Bang viewers. Tom and company develop and produce a show that's simply entertaining. It's meat and potatoes and doesn't have any pretense. It knows what it is."
Hertz concurs that he's grateful that Rules will now reach enough episodes for syndication. And Warburton says he's happy with the show's creative direction. "This is the first year where it seems like things are going well for us," the actor says. "The first nine shows we've shot I've been proud of."
In the ultimate adage that it's not personal, Hertz is even developing a new family sitcom at CBS —although he admits to being worried that he may accidentally bump off Rules in the process. For now, the team behind Rules is enjoying the show's revitalized Thursday night performance, but they shouldn't get too comfy. CBS' new Rob Schneider comedy is waiting in the wings, and guess which half-hour show might have to make room for it. Sighs Warburton: "It will be us again. It is nerve-wracking."
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