Perhaps to welcome the Bush administration, CBS is offering a kinder, gentler new TV series.

"Dolphin Cove," which premiered last Saturday, is a nice family drama with a splash of sophistication mixed in with all the sappiness. This is a show for people who still cry at the end of "Old Yeller," not cynics who watch "Miami Vice" in the secret hope that Tubbs will shoot Crockett.Frank Converse stars as Michael Larson, a scientist who moves to Australia under the aegis of a wealthy businessman who wants to prove that dolphins are as intelligent as human beings.

If viewers aren't immediately caught up in the drama of Flipper fielding flash cards, there are the more accessible concerns of the scientists' two children - young Katie, who lost her will to speak after being in a car wreck that killed her mother, and David, a sulky teen-ager who wants to go home to his girlfriend in America.

Trey Ames ("A Year in the Life") plays David and Karron Graves is Katie. Nick Tate plays Baron Trent, the sponsor of the research project, who harbors a secret plan to salvage a valuable ancient sunken ship.

Peter Benchley, author of "Jaws," is one of the creators of the series, which is filmed on location in Australia. He also wrote the premiere, so it's hard to predict the quality of subsequent episodes.

Once the family arrives in Australia, they meet hired hand Didge (Ernie Dingo), an Aborigine who rides horses, flies a helicopter and generally helps explain the strange new land.

They settle in, sort of, to mosquito nets - "There used to be vultures, but the mosquitoes ate them," Didge explains - and pizza topped with alligator meat.

Larson dives into his work, but two bottle-nosed dolphins in his care only make fun of him by splashing him with water and squealing what apparently is dolphinese for "nyah, nyah, nyah." But they take to silent Katie and establish an E.T.-like rapport with her.

David, meanwhile, is appalled at being sent, in uniform, to St. Crispin's, which his father neglected to tell him is an all-boys school. "The girls go to St. Somewhere Else," Larson explains. "Oh, good, St. Elsewhere. This gets better all the time," sulks David. The inside joke is a reference to co-executive producer John Masius, a former writer-producer on "St. Elsewhere."

On to high drama, though, when Katie's new therapist, Allison Mitchell (Virginia Hey), clumsily makes a reference to her own mother, causing Katie to run off and swim into the dangerous ocean. But it is we who are plunged into the depths - of Lassie-come-home-ness - when the wise dolphins leap a barrier and race out into the deep to rescue the mute child and her teacher.

If that's not enough to bring tears to your eyes, the episode ends with Katie watching an old videotaped home movie of her mother. (Count the number of fathers raising kids alone on TV, and it begins to look like moms are an endangered species.)

The dolphins might not speak English, but they sure know how to overact. If the series goes, they'll no doubt be demanding renegotiation of their contracts and greater creative control.

But the human characters seem a likable bunch, and "Dolphin Cove" is not a bad place to visit. And thanks to remote control you don't have to live there.

- CHANGE THOSE ROLODEX CARDS - Sam Donaldson, as mentioned previously, is leaving the White House beat, so chairs are moving at ABC News in Washington. Brit Hume becomes chief White House correspondent. Ann Compton gets the Dan Quayle beat. Lark McCarthy goes to the White House. Former national correspondent James Wooten covers the Senate. Sheilah Kast, formerly at the White House, covers the House. John McWethy is joined at the State Department by former Rome correspondent David Ensor. Bob Zelnick continues at the Pentagon. Walter Rodgers, formerly in Moscow, goes to the Justice Department. Dennis Troute, formerly at Justice, covers intelligence and law enforcement. Jeanne Meserve, formerly at State, becomes a general assignment reporter.

- MS. SMITH WATCHES WASHINGTON - C-SPAN's audience rose 97 percent in 1988, according to a study by the University of Maryland Survey Research Center. About 53 percent of households with television that had access to the public affairs cable network watched some programming on it during the year. The survey, a telephone poll of 2,379 randomly selected households, revealed that C-SPAN attracted viewers in 21.9 million households - it is available in 41.5 million households. Viewers were younger and more often female than previous studies indicated - 54 percent in the 25-44 age range and 51 percent female. They are a politically active bunch, though. Eighty-four percent said they were registered and 78 percent said they voted in the 1988 presidential election. C-SPAN doesn't get television ratings like everybody else since it is a non-profit service provided by the cable industry and doesn't carry advertising.