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Unsurprising 'O.C.' demise devoid of drama

Phil Rosenthal
Chicago Tribune

A product is white hot. Then it's not cool. Then it goes away.

You want to learn from its mistakes, but at the very least it's like watching a meteorite burn bright and burn out as it streaks across the night sky, mesmerizing even if it's inevitably followed by another shooting star, then another.

The imminent demise of Fox's "The O.C." announced last week was both predictable - and predicted.

The program, once popular enough to support a line of Chrismukkah products such as the yarmulke/Santa hat combo "yarmuclaus" for interfaith fans, has had its audience dwindle to around 4 million viewers this season.

That's down from an audience of around 10 million back in 2003-04, the soap's first season. Both Fox and marketers valued it then for its mix of older and younger viewers, including close to 2 million teens, conferring a certain hipness upon it.

Its brief shining moment was fueled in part by Fox's decision to run it behind "American Idol" for the second half of its rookie season. It hemorrhaged 3 million viewers in Season 2, another million in Season 3 and 2 million more this season. When the show exits Feb. 22, its teen audience looks to be less than one-fourth what it once was. So how did it fall so far so fast?

"It's half a business thing, half a creative thing," said Alan Sepinwall, the sharp-eyed TV critic of New Jersey's Star-Ledger and author of "Stop Being a Hater and Learn to Love `The O.C.,'" a paperback rushed onto shelves after the first season which apparently remains, to his great surprise, in print.

If "The O.C." was beneficiary of a post-"Idol" slot its first season, it suffered in its second from being moved to Thursdays, where Fox was last modestly successful six to seven years earlier with counter-programming such as "Martin" and "Living Single."

Emboldened by CBS' successful incursion on NBC's vaunted Thursday lineup, Fox made its own play for a cut of the movie-studio ad cash floating around and thought the youth-friendly "O.C." was the show to pry it loose.

"They got cocky and decided they were going to use it as a beachhead," Sepinwall said. "The rhetoric you heard out of Fox, even as viewership fell, was: `Look at what we had there before. We're doing fine.' ... They said they were making money, but at the same time they were devaluing (the show) because they put it somewhere very few people were going to find it."

Whatever the network was saying publicly, privately it was getting anxious, and business concerns quickly became creative concerns.

Josh Schwartz, who, in dreaming up "The O.C." at age 26, was said to be the youngest creator of an hour-long broadcast network series, threw everything he could think of into the first season. But by the second, he began to realize why most shows milk a juicy story arc like a love triangle for a full season rather than just two weeks.

"There are only so many cotillions that can be interrupted by a fistfight, so then they tried to introduce new characters people didn't necessarily like," Sepinwall said. "Then the third season was a complete mess. (Schwartz) said he bowed too much to ratings pressure, listening to the network too much in terms of doing sensational stories that were supposed to goose the ratings but didn't."

That third season culminated last spring in the death of Marissa Cooper, played by Mischa Barton, a polarizing figure. Teen girls seemed to love Marissa. Many grownups cheered her demise, loudly.

When "The O.C." returned this season in the 9 p.m. EST Thursday slot that had become the toughest on television, it got clobbered by ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and NBC's "Deal or No Deal" and virtually tied the CW's "Supernatural." A Wednesday tryout the next week fared little better, sealing its fate.

"The shame is it's been really good this year," Sepinwall said. "Because he tried all those things last year to goose the ratings and none of it worked, he's decided to do what he likes. ... It's been one of the best dramedies on TV.

"It didn't matter how good it was this year. People talk about the resurgence of `ER' in the ratings. It's not that it's up much over the last few years or that it was ever that far down. It was still a relatively successful show. It's just that when you're pulling 12 to 14 million, that 2 million difference is not that big a deal. When you're pulling 6 million and you lose 2 million, that's huge."

It's a law of nature that what goes up will come down. But not everything does so spectacularly as falling stars.

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