The Brand-Laced TV Scripts of Jonathan Prince

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Who: Television producer Jonathan Prince, who most recently produced NBC’s American Dreams, is now working with Madison Road Entertainment to integrate advertisers into scripted programming.

Why you need to know him: Mr. Prince is considered one of the few producers who has successfully integrated advertisers, including Campbell’s Tomato Soup, Ford, Kraft Singles and Oreos, into scripted TV.

Jonathan Prince views product placement in TV scripts as an art form that enhances the programming.

Credentials: Mr. Prince most recently spent the past three seasons producing NBC’s one-hour family drama American Dreams, during which he helped integrate Campbell’s Tomato Soup, Kraft Singles and Oreos into multiple-episode story arcs of the show and attract Ford to sponsor a commercial-free hour. Before that, he produced and co-wrote the film 18 Again, starring George Burns. He also wrote for and produced such TV shows as Blossom, Wilder Days, Grown Ups and Ask Harriet, and later directed episodes of Blossom, Party of Five and Dream On, as well as the Hollywood Pictures film Camp Nowhere. He’s also worked as an actor and game show host.

You’ve been one of the few producers who has worked to integrate brands into a scripted show. Why do that in the first place? What was the appeal? “First, the creative drive. We live in a branded universe. My son doesn’t ask me for 'sneakers,' he wants Nike or Adidas. My sisters don’t use 'soap,' they use Neutrogena. I don’t drive a 'car,' I drive a Ford. So integrating brands into storylines and dialogue is far more organic -- people talking the way people really talk -- than the accepted practice of avoiding such product identifications. Second, the financial argument. The money that comes from companies participating in branded entertainment goes toward making an expensive show far more reasonable in terms of a license fee and deficit. Higher quality scripted television for a more reasonable price to the networks and studios. And the participating companies support the brands which appear in the body of the show by purchasing more, not less, 30 second spots. So the ad sales teams win as well.”

There’s also the marketing appeal. “The companies we worked with on American Dreams were extremely aggressive in providing off-network promotion and marketing. Campbell’s put the American Dreams cast picture on millions of tomato soup can labels across the country and in Sunday supplements throughout the fall of their multi-episode arc on the show. And Ford, through TiVo trailers and other press, made sure that viewers of all networks and cable channels were aware of their special one-hour commercial-free presentation of the show, giving us a much-needed mid-season boost.”

How were those deals put together? And how heavily involved was NBC’s ad sales team? “The Campbell’s and Ford deals, as well as a deal with Kraft, were all put together by the NBC Agency and the NBC ad sales team. I had no part of the nuts and bolts of the deal-making, yet the NBC groups graciously made me a vital part of the creative decision-making every step of the way. Once the opportunity for brand integration was brought up, NBC allowed me to take the lead in working quite closely with the Campbell’s, Ford, and Kraft teams in creating integrated storylines that made our show more emotionally resonant and more grounded in the way that people behave in the real world, not just that of a fictional televised universe. These branded opportunities will only work if the creative team, the sales and marketing teams, and the brands themselves all agree on the best possible execution of the vision. Without the NBC Agency and NBC ad sales teams, it’s safe to say, there would have been no such opportunity.”

What did the show get out of the integration? “We were, in the fall launch, on tens of millions of tomato soup cans. We were in Sunday supplements and on TiVo ads as the Ford promotion hit the air later in the year. Our show grew in its reputation at NBC of being a show that was truly advertiser-friendly -- a huge issue in today’s world of content issues, FCC fines, and First Amendment fights. In addition, our production team was given the opportunity to tell stories about realistic people in the 1960s, an increasingly branded universe. The participation of Scholastic in the Campbell’s Tomato Soup fictional storyline about an essay contest allowed our show to be an integral part of bringing real-life families together as students worked with their parents to write essays about their own 'American dreams' -- culminating in one lucky girl winning a $100,000 college scholarship.”

When these deals are made, people immediately see dollar signs. Did problems ever arise with talent or their reps? How do you deal with talent, who might think they’re now endorsing a product through placements and want a cut of the fees? “We had absolutely no problems, nor even a whiff of a problem, at any time during these branded opportunities. Our actors knew that I was doing everything I could to make the show more creatively inspired, more financially sensible, and more advertiser-friendly. In short, I was trying to keep a quality show on the air. And if our show had stayed on the air, it would have been a victory for all of us -- from the actors and writers and directors to our incredibly talented crew.”

Integration happens all the time in reality shows. Why not more in scripted shows? “Ad sales teams win: more spots are sold to support integration. Network marketing teams win: more dollars are spent by the brands in nontraditional ways of promoting television shows. Networks and studios win: license fees and deficits are cut, allowing them to keep quality, 'bubble shows' on the air. So, if all this is true, then I think the reason for the relatively limited number of scripted integrations lies in the fear of writer/producers that the integrations will in some way affect the 'integrity' of their vision. It’s up to us, as creators, to work with the networks and the brands to come up with inspired storylines that protect the show, the networks and the brands themselves. The most successful integrations, I think, are -- metaphorically speaking -- the ones in which you don’t see the strings that move the puppets, nor the puppeteer himself.”

What are obstacles that producers or writers must still overcome to make this happen more often in scripted fare? “We, as producers and writers, have to overcome our fears of what integrations might 'do' to our beloved television shows. On American Dreams, the branded integrations were emotionally loaded with humor, family dynamics and character depth. They worked for us as a creative team because they felt like an organic, emotional part of the show. They worked for Campbell’s, Ford and Kraft because they had emotional resonance without feeling like crass product placement. As producers and writers, we have to overcome our limited way of thinking about branded integration. We have to stop protecting the old way of doing business and make ourselves more advertiser-friendly and more brand-savvy.”

How do you see things improving? Or getting worse? “Things will improve if the viewers and consumers get involved. Too often we hear about viewer groups who threaten to boycott companies that advertise on shows which don’t reflect content those groups are comfortable with. These same viewer groups might also begin to send out their own positive messages, congratulating and supporting the advertisers who sponsor the shows that they loyally and passionately watch each week. Things will get worse if we continue to create and air television shows that have content issues which drive advertisers away from broadcast television. And things will improve, I hope, if networks and producers and advertisers work closely to keep quality shows on the air in this time of overall declines in network ratings, especially in the first few months of a show’s existence. Madison Road can, with branded integration opportunities, lessen the network and studio risk during the often financially shaky initial series order, providing more economic reasons to pick quality shows up for the back nine, giving them a chance to catch on.”

You are now working closely with Madison Road Entertainment to identify integration opportunities for shows. What will you be looking for? “As always, I’m first and foremost a creative producer. Whether I’m writing the shows on my own, or helping a writer get their finished script, treatment or pitch onto the screen, I know one thing: It’s all driven by innovative ideas that are beautifully executed. Providing branded integration opportunities for shows that are poorly executed or ill-conceived will not save those shows. If branded integration provides numerous ways to make a good show better, one has to be reminded that you still have to start with a good show.”

Why form a relationship with Madison Road in the first place? “Madison Road, simply put, does this better than anyone. They know how to protect the interests of the brands, the network ad sales and marketing teams, and the studios. I think they’ve brought me on board to demonstrate to the creative community their dedication to protecting the vision of the writers and show runners, as well. You see, because of what we did on American Dreams, seamlessly integrating brands like Campbell’s Tomato Soup, the Ford Mustang, Kraft Singles and Oreo cookies, I’m proud to say that I don’t just talk the branded integration talk. I have it all on film in a way that pleased all parties involved, and in a way that the viewers responded to. I hope that my relationship with Madison Road provides the chance for the shows that I’m associated with to come out of the gate with lower license fees, lower deficits, more marketing opportunities, higher guarantees of ad sales, and therefore a better chance of swimming successfully through the shark-ridden waters of the fall launch.”

You’re obviously keeping an eye on such deals. What integrations would you say have really worked on scripted shows so far? “The integration in 24 was clearly a valuable one. And the Bernie Mac/Rolaids integration was a natural. I liked their Cadillac integration as well. Arrested Development did a very clever integration with Burger King.

What haven’t worked? “Let’s agree to view branded integrations as merely another art form, much like the integration of special effects shots and CGI, the integration of pop music as soundtrack, or even the integration of reality elements into scripted series. And like all those art forms, branded integrations fail when they are driven solely by financial considerations as creative aspects take a back seat. Art for commerce’s sake won’t work. And art for art’s sake won’t sell. So we have to find the balance.”

What’s on your TiVo? Deadwood , Major League Baseball, Jimmy Neutron, Ed, Edd, and Eddy. I have an 8-year-old son. And no, he doesn’t watch Deadwood.

What do you do on your downtime? “I coach my son and his friends on their baseball, soccer, and basketball teams. I love to read fiction, especially first fiction. I alternately cheer and weep at Dodger games, hot dog and beer in hand, as my beloved team sinks slowly into the West.”
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