Apparently, AD's viewers are among the wealthiest and best educated around. That's good news for advertisers!
NBC's 'American Dreams' is a critical favorite, but poor ratings make it a target for the ax. What can be done to save TV's best family drama?
By Glenn Garvin
A couple of years ago during an interview with NBC boss Jeff Zucker, I asked him if he feared his tombstone would read Here lies Jeff Zucker, the man who gave us desperate contestants eating horse rectums on television. He rolled his eyes.
''Yeah, yeah,'' Zucker replied. ''I'm the guy who put on Fear Factor. But I'm also the guy who put on American Dreams and the guy who put on Boomtown.'' It was a plea to remember that programming a network is a balancing act, and if Zucker should be debited for his share of of TV trash, he should also get credit for promoting serious drama.
But since then, NBC's account books have fallen seriously out of balance. Zucker has introduced a swarm of rancid programs that actually make Fear Factor look tasteful, from the smarmy sitcom Coupling to the outright pimpery of Who Wants To Marry My Mom. Meanwhile, Boomtown -- an innovative cop drama that sometimes told its stories from end to beginning -- was canceled years ago.
And now American Dreams, the finest drama on network television, may be about to join it in the TV trash bin. Over the past couple of weeks, NBC first chopped the show's season from 19 episodes to 17 and then rescheduled it from Sunday night to Wednesday, where it will be up against ABC's ratings powerhouse Lost.
''We're a show on the bubble,'' agrees American Dreams creator Jonathan Prince. ``If you like American Dreams, this is the time to say so. This is the time when it would help.''
If ever a TV show deserved help, it's American Dreams. The story of a pair of middle-class families (one white, one black) in 1960s Philadelphia, it's excellent by any conventional measure of drama. It has an ensemble cast the equal of any on television; a writing staff that's both thoughtful and witty; and the boppingest rock 'n' roll soundtrack ever assembled, period. (Anybody can put together oldies-radio standards like Baby Love and California Girls, but where else are you going to find buried '60s treasures like Concrete And Clay or Grim Reaper of Love?)
But American Dreams goes well beyond the conventional measures. With its unstinting look at the 1960s, it's one of just a handful of shows in the whole history of television that helps us understand who we are and where we came from, how we became the America of today.
Regardless of what you think of the '60s, whether you view them as the beginning of a brave new world of social justice or an orgy of juvenile self-indulgence, they were a historical hurricane that remapped American society. The cultural and political fractures of the decade -- the civil rights movements, feminism, drugs, the sexual revolution, the role of U.S. troops in policing the world -- are still registering aftershocks 40 years later.
American Dreams allows us to examine those issues simultaneously from the distance of four decades, and immediately, through the eyes of the people living through them. It makes them more comprehensible -- and yet, paradoxically, emphasizes their complexity -- by reducing them to bite-sized chunks.
When her brother J.J. is shipped off to Vietnam, 17-year-old Meg Pryor becomes an anti-war activist -- but discovers to her shock that J.J. regards her efforts as disloyal rather than support. Her black school chum Sam Walker is frustrated that their interracial friendship runs into as much resistance from his family as hers. When Meg's mother decides to take a job outside their home for the first time, her children disapprove at least as much as her husband.
Its literal application of the old '60s slogan ''the personal is political'' has made American Dreams into a true family viewing experience. In homes all over America, parents watch it with teenage children who are getting an unprecedented (and, occasionally, uncomfortable) glimpse into the warts-and-all world from which Mom and Dad came.
''I love watching it with my son, because I think it's an insight into that period of our history,'' says 48-year-old Jayne Vander Woude, who grew up in Chicago and now teaches art at Miami's Westminster Christian School. ``I was a kid during that time, had two older brothers who received their draft notices. My older brother's friends went off to Vietnam. I went through integration -- my school going from all-white to a more diverse population.
``I think it gives our kids a greater understanding of some of the things that have happened in our country. It's one thing for them to read about it in history books. But this is a way they can experience it. A lot of our kids don't grasp, for instance, what racial prejudice was like, even at that time. They think all this stuff just changed, but they don't really under the struggle of change.''
Her 16-year-old son Jon, a Westminster junior, says he loves the show, too -- and is often stunned by what he learns from it. A scene where white liberals venture into the inner city to clean up a park, only to be driven off by angry black nationalists, caught him off-guard.
''I'd never realized the extent of the racism, not just from whites to blacks, but back from blacks to whites,'' he muses. ``And when J.J. was in the Marines and got sent off on a secret mission to Cambodia -- I'd never had a clue that that kind of thing happened.''
BY THE NUMBERS
As good as American Dreams is, NBC isn't running a charity ward. (Though anybody who stumbles onto an episode of Fear Factor could be forgiven for wondering if it's a mental ward.) But there are good business reasons to keep the show, too.
It's true the American Dreams weekly audience is an unspectacular 7.6 million -- and in the crucial 18-to-49 age group, an even less spectacular 3.3 million. (Compare that to the same numbers for the show's new head-to-head competitor Lost: 16.3 million total viewers and 7.8 million among 18-to-49.)
But it's also true that few shows on TV deliver as much bang for the buck to advertisers looking for upscale, educated viewers. When you start parsing the arcane research numbers that advertising executives use for bedtime reading, you find American Dreams is in TV's top 20 in terms of its percentage of college-educated viewers, and a startling No. 9 in percentage of viewers aged 25-to-54 who make more than $110,000 a year.
There's another important fact about American Dreams that Jeff Zucker should note when he ponders what his tombstone might say. In TV Week magazine's annual poll of critics conducted in January, American Dreams was named the 15th best show on television -- better than NBC's graying West Wing, better than its prized sitcom Scrubs, better than any other show on the network.
But don't take our word for it, Jeff. Listen to Mary Potter, a 20-year-old sophomore at Delaware County Community College in Media, Pa., who has collected about 5,000 names and e-mail addresses so far on her Internet petition to save American Dreams.
''American Dreams is a family drama, but it's not a nerdy-nerd show,'' she says. ``So much on TV today is a reality show, and if it's not that, it's medical or murder. This is such an original show. There's not anything nearly like it.''