Save our shows
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
By MIKE BRANTLEY
TV & Media Editor
"Please, please, please," pleads Mobile resident Bill Spencer in his letter to the NBC television network, "let this great, wholesome, entertaining hour run its natural course."
His recently mailed letter is in support of the well-regarded NBC dramatic series "American Dreams," a show that is "on the bubble," as one publicist for the program put it recently. She meant that, because of a measurable fall-off in ratings during its third season, "American Dreams" is in real jeopardy of being canceled.
"We face an uncertain future," said series creator and executive producer Jonathan Price. "In the next few weeks, NBC will look at their new pilots that they have made. They will compare them to what they already have, and they will decide whether they are going to pick us up or not."
Debuting in 2002 to solid ratings and even better reviews, "American Dreams" stars Tom Verica and Gail O'Grady as the parents in the Pryor household in Philadelphia during the mid-1960s. With Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" stage as one of its backdrops (Clark, recovering from a stroke suffered late last year, is one of the "Dreams" executive producers), the series began with a glimpse of what middle America was like before the death of President John F. Kennedy and concluded its first hour with that tragic event.
But, as the series has shadowed on screen the events of the 1960s, in this decade the show was brought to its knees by its prime-time competition. The ratings took a hit last season when CBS scheduled its big-performing crime drama "Cold Case" against "American Dreams" on Sunday nights, and then this season the audience was further eroded by ABC's success with its "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" reality series.
By early this year, the network's programmers had so little faith in the show's ability to generate the ratings they wanted during the February ratings sweeps -- one of the quarterly periods when viewer levels determine how much networks and affiliates can charge for commercial time -- that they took the show temporarily off the air. When they brought it back last month to air the season's final four episodes, they removed the series from a tough Sunday night spot and shoved it into a tougher Wednesday position, where it faced competition from ABC's red-hot new drama "Lost," as well as two episodes of the most-watched CBS reality show, "Survivor: Palau."
"I think it was horrible moving it to Wednesday night," Spencer told the Mobile Register after mailing his letter to the network. "That was horrible, because that is a great show. They shouldn't have done that."
Tube pundits in the press have all but written off the show -- the same as they have done with "Star Trek: Enterpise," the UPN series that was canceled by its network earlier this year.
The "Star Trek" prequel, airing Friday nights this season, stars Scott Bakula as Capt. Jonathan Archer, commander of a 22nd century starship in the pioneering days of human interstellar travel. Only five more episodes are left to be aired, and on behalf of the show, many of its fans have been vigorously sending out letters, postcards and e-mails, organizing online petitions and even picketing Paramount Studios in Hollywood.
The activity is not expected to do any good, however.
"There's no chance that the mission...to keep the four-year-old 'Enterprise' on the air is going to succeed," writes Michael Logan in the April 17-23 issue of TV Guide. "The fate of the series is sealed."
But there's every chance that "American Dreams" might be saved by its fans, Price said.
"I've heard from the folks at NBC, that they have received more postcards and e-mails about 'American Dreams' in the last two weeks than they have received on any show that has been in a similar position," Price said.
Perhaps most telling, Price said, is that the network has not ordered the "American Dreams" sets taken down. In other words, they are still paying big bills and studio rent to keep the show's 1960s sets standing.
Spencer, 67, said he never before felt so passionately about a television series that he would write a letter to a network. But the program has struck a chord with him.
"It's because I have been there and done that," said Spencer. "As a matter of fact, and I am not a hero and I am not trying to make myself out a hero, but I was one of the first Americans in Vietnam. I was in there when we still went in wearing civilian clothes."
The war in Vietnam is one of the issues that has been dealt with in "American Dreams," and Price said it will continue to be a component in the stories he tells if his show goes on. The series also has focused on the racial issues that confronted the country then, as well as other societal and cultural developments that made the 1960s such a tumultuous period.
Spencer, who was born in Philadelphia where the show is set, said, "I think a lot of folks can relate to that show. It's not like some of these doctor shows or some of these 'CSI' shows that you sit there and watch and are spellbound because of all the magic that goes on. It's a show that you have actually been there and done. One way or another, some phase of that show you have lived through."
Grace Jones is another Mobile television viewer who has been touched by the series -- so touched that she said she also plans a letter to the network. The early 1960s, she said, were a lot like the 1950s, when she was a teenager watching Clark's "Bandstand."
She said, "I can remember in '57 watching the Dick Clark show on a small, black-and-white TV. (On 'American Dreams') the story line is really good, about the daddy who is the boss of the family. That really is how it used to be.... The '60s were not that different until late in the '60s when the radical changes started coming about."
If the show is to end with just three seasons of episodes produced, the network will do a disservice to its viewers by not wrapping up the ongoing stories, Jones said. In the last episode that was made, for example, teen Meg Pryor (Brittany Snow) had rebelled against her parents by climbing onto the back of a motorcycle.
"They didn't tie up enough loose ends," Jones complained. "Like with Meg riding off on the back of the motorcycle with the little punk next door. Where is that going? Is she going to make him stop at the next corner and get off, I hope?"
No, Price answers, Meg's ride will take her far away from the Philadelphia suburbs. That is, it will if the series gets its fourth season.
"When we last saw her in the television show, she had gotten onto the back of a bad boy's motorcycle and started driving to Berkeley. We'll pick her up in Berkeley in 1967 in the middle of the anti-war movement. Her family in Philadelphia is waiting for her to come home, in fact sending one of their family members to go bring her home."
Price gave a few more indications of what will happen on the show if a fourth season gets a green light from NBC.
"In our show it will be January of 1967 when we start the show in season four," he said. "We intend to pick up where we left off, with the character of JJ (Will Estes), the returned Marine, now working for a company that has a bid making the spacesuits for the Apollo program. So this show will very closely follow the space program, including in January of 1967 that tragic fire on the Apollo 1 mission killing three astronauts."
Price is encouraged that the network is talking with him and that the show's sets are still standing. He said "Dreams" has a "better than fighting chance" now at renewal, thanks to its fans.
"If your readers are asking whether the letters make a difference, indeed they do," Price said. "When they write those postcards to NBC in Burbank or when they e-mail to AmericanDreams@nbcuni.com
, literally somebody sits there counting. Last week there were 4,000 e-mails. There is an online petition that has over 20,000 signatures."
He suggests sending postcards to the attention of NBC Entertainment President Kevin Riley (NBC, 3000 W. Alameda Ave., Burbank, CA 91523).
"I think old-fashioned postcards work the best," Price said. "You know why? Because you can see them. You can feel them. You can touch them. They can dump them on someone's desk."