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TELEVISION & RADIO | FALL TV SEASON

Will 'The O.C.' still enjoy the good life after baseball?

September 15, 2003|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

Fox, a certain Beverly Hills ZIP code notwithstanding, has struggled with shows named for Southern California cities. Its "Pasadena" ended almost as soon as it started, and "Bakersfield P.D." was a bust.

However, Fox is doing more than OK with "The O.C.," a drama set largely in Orange County's Newport Beach. Launching in the late summer, with reruns as its main competition, it is a burgeoning hit.

Yet if strong early ratings for the show evoke memories of "Beverly Hills, 90210," "The O.C.'s" success puts the network in a bind.

Although it has found its audience, it's about to lose it, at least until late October while Fox televises baseball's playoffs and World Series.

The network is giving up a lot in putting the show on the shelf temporarily.

Blending the family drama and culture clash genres with generous doses of sex, debauchery and nubile young adults in skimpy swimsuits, "The O.C." has seen its viewership grow each week, making it the top-rated show with teens.

Last week it attracted more than 9.2 million viewers, its largest audience ever. It also has grown in key demographic slices, such as adults ages 18 to 49 and, more narrowly and desirably, adults 18 to 34.

Fox has sponsored several promotional events for the show's fans, including a standing-room-only screening party in Hermosa Beach last Tuesday attended by several cast members. Girls holding signs proclaiming love for their favorite characters screamed with glee as the stars arrived.

"The O.C." is connecting with viewers at a time when the networks have had difficulty launching dramatic series or other scripted programs.

With the exception of the "Law & Order" and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" franchises, most new dramas on the four major networks during the last several years have foundered, even with major stars attached. Fox's "Boston Public" has fallen below its first-season burst, and "24" was more of a critical than a popular hit before last season, when it got a boost from its "American Idol" lead-in.

Demonstrating its confidence, Fox last week ordered a full season of "The O.C."

But whatever momentum "The O.C." has built ends after Tuesday's installment, with Major League Baseball's postseason taking much of Fox's prime-time schedule for at least a month.

In fact, at this point, it's not even clear when the series will return.

Fox had originally announced that the show would come back Oct. 30 in the treacherous 9 p.m. Thursday hour ruled by CBS' "CSI" and NBC's "Will & Grace."

Noting that movie studios like to use Thursday prime-time programming to promote their movies opening on Fridays, network executives had hoped to position "The O.C." as its Thursday stronghold -- even though that would mean facing down a daunting competitor.

Josh Schwartz, the 26-year-old creator and executive producer of "The O.C.," joked early last week about his series "going up against that little bitty show we like to call 'CSI.' "

Preparing to tough it out, though, he said at the time: "We've been building to our cliffhanger which we hope will have people talking for five weeks. We feel we have our audience now, and they should follow us."

Since then, however, executives have begun reevaluating the notion of pitting their emerging hit against a proven juggernaut.

"This is a great problem to have," said Fox Television Entertainment Group Chairman Sandy Grushow. "There are a number of different scenarios that are possible. And what will drive this is whether we want to build a show or build a night."

Given the continuing juggernaut of NBC's "Must-See TV," bookended by "Friends" and "ER," and the CBS lineup of "Survivor" and "CSI," Grushow said it might not be prudent to put "The O.C." there.

"Right now it's a two-network economy on Thursday, though it's capable of being a three-network economy with 'The O.C.,' " he said, adding that Fox might make more of a statement on Thursdays if it waits a year, when "Friends" ends its run.

At this point, then, the show's producers and fans must wait to see what the network decides.

The series' soap-opera-style shenanigans revolve around tough but sensitive teen Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie), who was raised by an alcoholic mother on the other side of the county line, in Chino. When Ryan gets into trouble with the law, his kindhearted public defender, Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), takes him under his wing and home to his family, who lives in a ritzy neighborhood of Newport Beach.

Ryan is greeted warily by Sandy's upper crust wife, Kirsten (Kelly Rowan), but immediately bonds with his borderline-nerd son, Seth (Adam Brody).

More problems brew when he becomes attracted to Marissa (Mischa Barton), the nice-and-naughty girl next door.

Of no small significance was Fox's scheduling of the series. In addition to airing original episodes on Tuesdays, the network repeated episodes at least once and sometimes twice a week.

"We needed to make this show available to our audience," Grushow said. "It was absolutely essential to building this show."

The show's multilayered premise is another key element in its success. "It's a series with inherent female appeal that guys don't have to feel ashamed watching," Schwartz said. "There's a father-son dynamic, then you have the friendship with the two guys."

McKenzie said he has been approached by fans "who say they love the show. Mothers tell me they watch it with their daughters. Guys come up and say, 'Wow, that guy really [beat you up] in that last episode.' It seems to go across the board."

Fox plans to promote "The O.C." heavily during the baseball postseason.

Grushow said the one aspect that is set in stone right now is the ending of Tuesday night's show.

"We do know this -- we will say 'The O.C.' will be back."

Whether its growing audience will be waiting for it remains to be seen.

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