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'Dreams' May Hint at What Lies Ahead for Merger

October 09, 2003|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

The first big day for NBC's family drama "American Dreams" might well have been its last.

It was May 13, 2002, and the producers and cast had been flown to New York from Los Angeles to hobnob with thousands of potential advertisers gathered for the rollout of the network's fall schedule. NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker was already a big fan of the show.

Everything seemed perfect -- until breakfast.

That's when executives from Universal Television -- the arm of Vivendi Universal that was producing "American Dreams" for NBC -- told creator Jonathan Prince that the show would be shot in Canada. The budget, Universal executives said, wasn't big enough to cover the costs of filming in L.A.

Prince refused. He wasn't about to make "American Dreams" in Canada.

The two sides were suddenly at loggerheads. Universal executives tried pressuring Prince to reconsider, but he would not bend. NBC later joined the fray, taking sides with Prince. The conflict between the network and Universal grew so heated, those familiar with the situation say, some worried that "American Dreams" was in danger of falling apart before the first episode even aired.

As Zucker stepped onto the stage at Radio City Music Hall that afternoon, however, he was unaware of the behind-the-scenes fight that was unfolding. He told the crowd of advertisers that his favorite new show was the feel-good drama, set in the 1960s. " 'American Dreams,' " he said, "will follow the dreams of a family in Philadelphia through one of the most turbulent decades of our time."

As it turned out, NBC was also in for a bumpy ride.

General Electric Co.-owned NBC on Wednesday announced it had finalized the details of its planned acquisition of Vivendi Universal's U.S. entertainment assets, including Universal Television. NBC executives have confidently predicted a smooth transition, assuming regulators approve the deal early next year.

TV industry veterans, however, scoff at the idea that there will be easy harmony. They say it will take years for NBC to meld cultures inherently at odds.

Besides tussling over "American Dreams," NBC and Universal have disagreed in the last couple of years over the handling of negotiations to renew the "Law & Order" franchise. What's more, they have clashed over the price NBC would have to pay for other Universal shows, such as the new sitcom "Coupling." And they have had their creative differences, including over the short-lived drama "Mister Sterling."

Both sides downplay such squabbles.

"Of course, we have had differences," said David Goldhill, president of Universal Television Group. "You can only have differences with people whom you are in business with. But overall, we've had a tremendous amount of success. We've had more success with NBC than with any other network."

Added Zucker: Such friction is "the price of doing business in this town."

NBC and Universal Television have had a long history together. The network has relied on a steady stream of shows produced by Universal, dating back half a century to "Dragnet." Other Universal hits that have aired on NBC include "Wagon Train," "The Virginian," "The Rockford Files," "McMillan and Wife" and "Miami Vice."

But in recent years, relations have become increasingly rocky.

To be sure, tensions between the TV networks and television studios are not unusual -- especially now that it has become more difficult to make money producing programming.

Most TV shows operate at a deficit -- at least before syndication -- with networks typically paying about $1.3 million for an hourlong drama that costs a studio more than $2 million to make. And foreign interest in American shows has been drying up in recent years, shrinking a once-reliable revenue source.

Meanwhile, network executives have been clamoring for TV production companies to deliver shows with marquee talent, clever concepts and scenes with plenty of pizazz -- car crashes, helicopters and off-the-lot shots.

The result: Production costs are climbing, even though it's far from a sure bet that a new show will succeed. In fact, three-quarters of all new shows fail, long before they are ripe for syndication -- where the big money is made.

It was against this backdrop that Universal pushed to keep a lid on the production costs for "American Dreams."

Prince, a onetime actor who has spent most of his career writing sitcoms, arrived at the New York breakfast expecting to be clinking champagne glasses with Universal executives, celebrating NBC's decision to add their show to the network's lineup.

But the mood soured as soon as Universal executives talked about shooting in Canada.

"My heart just fell into my stomach," said Prince, 45. "Here I finally got my dream show on the air, but I thought, 'I won't be a part of it.' "

Prince said he refused to move from Los Angeles because of his son, of whom he shares custody. "My 5-year-old son was about to start T-ball, and I coach his Little League," Prince said.

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