Jonathan Prince got his big break in the entertainment business while playing craps. A struggling actor and writer, he flirted with a woman who was in Las Vegas to visit comedian George Burns. Prince unexpectedly met Burns, pitched him an off-the-cuff idea and was hired to write one of the actor's last movies, the 1988 film 18 Again.
Almost 20 years later, Prince is the creator and show-runner of American Dreams, which is in its third season on NBC. Dreams is in trouble, and he is campaigning to save it. Season-to-date, it has a mediocre 2.5 average rating among 18-49s, dangerously below the average of two shows already cancelled by NBC this season: LAX, with 2.6, and Father of the Pride, with 3.0.
The network's decision could come anytime in the next few months. Persuading network execs to keep a show is a daunting task, but Prince is ready.
The son of an eye doctor and a schoolteacher, Prince attended Beverly Hills High School, where he got to know Shawn Cassidy and Nicolas Cage. He majored in English at Harvard but also took courses in conflict resolution and diplomacy—essential skills, he says, for any television producer.
He started in TV in 1982 as a production assistant on several of Dick Clark's Whatever Became of… celebrity specials. Throughout the early '80s, Prince struggled as an actor, mostly playing precocious kids. Feeling that his repertoire was limited, he decide to go behind the camera.
Meeting Burns was a turning point; after finishing work on 18 Again, he moved into TV, learning to write, direct and produce. His credits include shows from MTM (Annie McGuire and City) and Witt-Thomas (Lenny and Blossom). Prince also perfected his pitch technique. From 1994 to 2002, he helped create and run more than a dozen other pilots, series and specials, such as Don't Forget Your Toothbrush, Youth in Revolt and Grown Ups.
Prince turned to drama in 2002 with American Dreams, a vehicle that explores serious topics through the eyes of a Catholic family in Philadelphia during the 1960s. A storyline about soldiers sent to Vietnam parallels the experience of military families whose lives have been uprooted by the Iraq War. The show has also covered women's rights, voting rights for African-Americans and homophobia, relevant themes today.
“Some of our best episodes are about emotions,” Prince says. “But empathy on TV isn't really a ratings-buster.”
To boost the program's chances of staying on air, Prince has put considerable effort into making Dreams an ad-friendly show. “Our job is to sell Coke and cars and floor wax,” he says. And he has found creative ways to do it.
During the first season of American Dreams, Prince says, NBC wouldn't let him include footage from a 1963 Coke commercial, concerned that other advertisers might resent the plug. By the second season, he had persuaded the network to experiment with product placement—on the condition that it wouldn't seem out of place on the show. Vintage TV spots from Coke could appear when a character watched television. A glass of Ovaltine and a cheese sandwich using Kraft singles would be appropriate if a character wanted a snack.
Prince then took his ad-friendly quest a step farther, writing storylines around several products, including one about a Campbell Soup writing contest the company actually conducted in the '60s. (In the Dreams version, one of the characters wins.) He persuaded Campbell Soup to run the same contest in 2005, this one with much bigger prizes.
While Campbell Soup isn't paying him directly for the advertising, Prince says his show benefits: Millions of cans of soup have “Watch American Dreams” printed on their label.
Despite his efforts, it's unclear whether the ad relationships Prince has forged will influence NBC execs about the show's fate. They pulled Dreams from the schedule for the February sweeps. When it returns in March, it moves to Wednesdays at 8 p.m. opposite Lost, from its previous slot on Sundays at 8 p.m.
Prince, however, has a few tricks that could boost ratings in this season's final stretch.
On the March 9 episode, Campbell Soup is announcing the winner of the $100,000 grand prize in the essay contest it cooked up with Prince. On March 16, Paris Hilton will play actress Barbara Eden, whom the Dreams' girls meet on the set of I Dream of Jeannie on a trip to Los Angeles.
And if Dreams returns for a fourth season, pop superstar Usher has agreed to perform on the show. (Usher has already appeared on Dreams, as have The Kinks, John Legend and other entertainers. Prince recruits top artists to sing period hits for his drama.) Prince also wants to keep addressing the cultural revolution of the 1960s, which began with the assassination of John F. Kennedy and ended with the resignation of Richard Nixon.
For now, he is cautiously optimistic about the show's future. “The good news is that NBC asked us to keep the set standing,” Prince says, “so we're negotiating our lease for next year.”