The Parents Television Council surely didn't plan it this way, but a protest from the conservative watchdog group might do for "Gossip Girl" what a guy-on-guy kiss and coed romps haven't been able to accomplish this season: Boost the ratings, which have seen double-digit declines this fall.
The controversy stems from a multiple-partner sex scene planned for tonight's episode of the soapy CW drama, which the network has been teasing on-air as "OM3," in keeping with its suggestive, text-speak marketing. The threesome involves major characters on the show, though their identities haven't been revealed.
Last week, the council fired off a letter to the network's affiliates asking them not to air the episode, calling it "reckless and irresponsible" and warning that stations could be liable for Federal Communications Commission fines if the government agency decides the show violates decency laws.
The L.A.-based organization, which has condemned everything from Britney Spears songs to Carl's Jr. commercials, has taken aim at "Gossip Girl" before for its racy "OMFG" ad campaign. The CW's "90210" and "America's Next Top Model" also have been in the group's cross hairs. (There has been no FCC action as a result of the complaints.)
So far, no affiliates have refused to air the episode, and no advertisers have pulled their spots, the network says.
"This story is organic to the characters and it's handled in a responsible way," said Dawn Ostroff, the CW's entertainment president.
The attention has put the Monday melodrama back on the front burner during November sweeps and at a time when its ratings have cooled. The show, now in its third season, has been drawing an average 2.2 million viewers each week, a fraction of the audience watching prime-time shows on networks such as CBS and Fox and a drop from its previous 2.6 million (2007-08) and 2.7 million (2008-09) viewers.
By CW standards, though, the show about filthy rich Manhattan teenagers remains a hit, primarily in its target demographic of women ages 18 to 34. It's the network's highest-rated show with that audience, although it has slipped 10% this season. "Gossip Girl" gets a considerable boost from online and time-shifted viewing, with its numbers increasing 60% in women ages 18 to 34 when DVR airings are tallied. It's also one of the bestselling TV properties on iTunes, and its stars are omnipresent across film, music, magazines, websites, red carpets and chat shows.
Still, with other shows stealing buzz, including the CW's own new hit, "The Vampire Diaries," it's not a bad time to push the envelope. The show, longtime watchers may recall, implied a sex romp between bad boy Chuck Bass and a pair of nameless twins in a prior season, but that doesn't have the same punch as well-known characters in a menage a trois.
Executive producers Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage said they're exploring new territory this season because most of the characters have graduated from prep school and are now in college, where experimentation is common. However, they're still working with the heightened reality of the Upper East Side and its wealth and hedonism.
Schwartz promises more cutting-edge content for the second half of the season. "We're not going to pull back," he said. "If anything, we'll be accelerating because we've gotten our footing with these characters being out of high school. The PTC may be writing a lot of letters this year."
TV analysts don't think the sexual tripling, which also will be seen in flashback on the Nov. 16 episode, is much of a stretch. "This is the latest risque plot twist in a program that's all about them," said John Rash, senior vice president/director of media analysis at ad agency Campbell Mithun.