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The Hit That Isn't

The snippy teen drama 'Gossip Girls' is an Internet smash, and a conundrum for its network.

January 27, 2008|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

ON "Gossip Girl," the deliciously catty prep school drama that debuted on the CW this fall, Upper East Side socialites track each other's misdeeds on an anonymously penned blog that has the power to make or break reputations. When reformed wild child Serena van der Woodsen was snapped buying a pregnancy test in a recent episode, the photo zoomed through cyberspace and popped up on her classmates' cellphones within moments.

The show's young fans have shown a similar affinity for new media, helping to consistently make "Gossip Girl" the most downloaded television program on iTunes. But despite the program's online popularity, the network hasn't been able to translate the Web buzz into substantial TV ratings. Even after a marketing push, just 2.6 million viewers on average tuned in to watch the show's first 13 episodes -- about 500,000 of them teens, its target demographic.

"It's sort of become the first show that has managed to achieve some level of cultural permeation and success in the new world order where ratings don't really seem to apply," said executive producer Josh Schwartz.

For the young network, however, which made "Gossip Girl" the centerpiece of its sophomore season, ratings very much matter.

When viewers watch on different platforms, "we don't make the kind of money we make when it's on the air," said Dawn Ostroff, the CW's president of entertainment. "That's something still being figured out: How can we take advantage of viewership shifting to different places?"

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, January 27, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
'Gossip Girl': Today's Calendar article about "Gossip Girl" says that the show's target demographic is teenagers. Its network, the CW, sells to advertisers who seek viewers in the 18-to-34 age range.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, February 03, 2008 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
'Gossip Girl': Last Sunday's article about "Gossip Girl" said that the show's target demographic is teenagers. Its network, the CW, sells to advertisers who seek viewers in the 18-to-34 age range.

Until then, the network needs to increase the traditional television audience for the glossy drama, and it believes it has an opening now that most scripted shows have been sidelined by the Writers Guild of America strike. Beginning Monday, the CW is giving the teen soap a second airing, packaging the old episodes with bonus material in the hopes of reviving the underperforming drama.

That the CW is still trying to boost interest in a program originally regarded as one of the hottest new entrants of the season speaks to the difficulty in gauging how new media are reshaping television watching. That's caused substantial anxiety in the entertainment industry, which is locked in a bitter labor dispute about how to value the digital space.

"If you believe that all the activity, hype and buzz on the Web translates into viewership, then 'Snakes on a Plane' should have been a blockbuster," said Jeffrey Cole, director of the USC Annenberg School for Communication's Center for the Digital Future, referring to the much-hyped 2006 movie.

"The disconnect seems to be with teens who love to speculate and comment online but rarely turn it into direct viewing," added Cole, who advises networks and advertisers on the changing landscape. "Teens, while still interested in television, are less interested in television than any generation that has come before them."

Indeed, "Gossip Girl's" status at the bottom of the weekly Nielsen ratings chart belies the show's online activity, executives said. "When you look at all the ways people are getting 'Gossip Girl' episodes, whether on TV or TiVo or streaming or downloading it, clearly there's a very strong core group of viewers," Ostroff said. "Our job is to start getting the show broadened out a bit."

On the move

TO do so, the CW gathered the cast at a posh Hollywood club on a recent warm morning to shoot segments for the new campaign. The winsome young stars -- dressed in Chanel and other top labels -- lounged on a sea-green ottoman in an ornately gilded room, delivering lines written by the network's marketing staff. The group hadn't been together since production in New York shut down in December, and they giggled and bantered as producers conferred between shots.

"Save the energy for the takes, please!" shouted a harried director.

The material will be used in "Gossip Girl Revealed," a package of DVD-like extras such as outtakes and cast interviews that will be wrapped around the first few repeats. As part of the relaunch, the CW also moved the drama to a temporary Monday time slot from Wednesday nights to avoid competing with Fox's "American Idol."

"I think it's a fantastic idea," said Blake Lively, who plays Serena. "So much of our show has been based around the buzz -- it's kind of emulated what happens on the show with the text messaging and online, how these kids have become popular. And if you go away for a while, it's harder to come back and be the 'it' person in school or the 'it' show. So it's important to try to keep the buzz around it."

The success of the relaunch is also pivotal for the CW, a nascent network that was formed by the merger of the WB and UPN in 2006. This season marked the first in which the network aired its own programs, and executives did not hide their initial excitement about "Gossip Girl."

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