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If `The O.C.' dies, will O.C. mourn?

With the TV show on the ropes, it's debatable what cancellation would mean for the county's image. But look at what Dallas experienced.

December 12, 2006|Yvonne Villarreal and Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writers

On Saturday afternoon, Emma Murphy, a 16-year-old from Sydney, Australia, gazed at Newport Bay's choppy waters, gripping a Guess purse and a perception of Orange County gleaned solely from the small screen.

Aboard "The O.C. Experience Tour" boat, Emma spotted something that tore her attention from the surrounding yachts to the Balboa Fun Zone.

"Oh my God! That's the Ferris wheel that Ryan and Marissa had their first date on!" she yelled, referring to two main characters on the TV series "The O.C." "I have to go on, Mum."

With a mix of soap opera antics and pop culture smarts, "The O.C." has been a boon to its hometown, culminating the county's transformation from Los Angeles' ho-hum neighbor to a trend-maker perched on the endless Pacific. Its pull was so strong that a county supervisor suggested turning John Wayne Airport into "The O.C. Airport," and when characters ripped on Riverside residents as "white trash," officials in the inland city mulled their legal options.

But in the show's fourth season on Fox, its ratings have plummeted to 97th among prime-time shows, with an audience of 3.7 million, according to recent Nielsen numbers. Up against juggernauts such as "Grey's Anatomy," the show appears close to its demise, with fans posting "Save The O.C." pleas on YouTube. Like a homecoming queen stripped of her tiara, Orange County is facing a future without a series that served as a weekly hourlong infomercial for Newport Beach and has even persuaded families to cross oceans for a firsthand look.

"It makes you dream of living here, in this beautiful atmosphere," said Emma, who sported oversized sunglasses like the show's female characters and begged her mom to buy a pink sweater "like Marissa's." "It was my first look into the lifestyle over here. It's a teenage fantasy."

If Beverly Hills, Miami and other cities tied to television dramas are indicators, Orange County's newfound national brand will last well past the final episode of "The O.C." -- sparking both delight and consternation. Some say getting hitched to the depiction of Newport's bronzed and Botoxed chattering class could box in county image-makers for decades. Just ask officials in Dallas (more on its Texas-sized headaches later).

Simon Hudson, an associate professor at the University of Calgary, has studied how films boost tourism in locales splashed across the screen. Television shows -- sometimes recycled for decades in domestic and international syndication -- appear to have a similar effect, he said.

The Ewing clan, which schemed for more than a dozen seasons on "Dallas" starting in 1978, roped in about half a million tourists a year, according to a study by Hudson and a colleague published in the Journal of Travel Research. Boston toasted the estimated $7 million a year in unpaid advertising that "Cheers" brought to Beantown.

The effect of the small-screen is so strong that Palm Springs officials are already salivating over "Hidden Palms," a show slated as a midseason replacement on the CW network (it's shot mainly in the Phoenix area).

"Films are one-offs and no guarantee -- most of them fail," Hudson said. "Whereas TV series are around for a long, long time."

"Miami Vice," for example, helped turn the Florida metropolis into a playground for bling-toting hip-hop stars.

"Miami was more known as a retirement center; it was dark and shuttered," said David Whitaker, a spokesman for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The late-1980s crime show "caressed that landscape," said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University. "It gave Miami this evil but incredibly seductive look

Similarly, some Orange County officials would like to keep tacking "the" in front of "O.C." As the show pops up on televisions in Britain, Germany and other countries, the Newport Beach Conference & Visitors Bureau has charted a 20% increase in website hits. A map directing tourists to the Balboa and Newport piers and other locations that made "O.C." guest appearances remains the bureau's most-requested item, though most scenes are filmed in Los Angeles County.

"We never really sold ourselves as 'the real O.C.,' but the concept of using the term 'O.C.' has become so ingrained that I think we will continue to use it," said Gary Sherwin, the Newport bureau's president and chief executive.

Beverly Hills still gets calls seeking directions to the Peach Pit, the fictional diner from "Beverly Hills, 90210," which ended its run six years ago. In fact, when the city's visitors bureau director, Kathy Smits, took her first tour of the Museum of Television & Radio in Beverly Hills several years ago, she stumbled upon Japanese tourists crowded around a "90210" episode.

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