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What a Teen Wants

Pacific breeze blows across the Manhattan Beach set of The O.C., where calm has descended after the cast and crew scatter for lunch. But the teen drama's creator, Josh Schwartz, is pacing outside his office, staring at photos of women's clothing. At 28 years of age and dressed in a T-shirt and cords, Schwartz looks more like a production assistant than an executive producer, but he is very much in charge of this Fox show, right down to the wardrobe selection for his actresses.

His micromanaging is understandable: With The O.C. in its second season after a breakout debut, his show's future—everything from ad revenue to DVD sales and syndication—rests on his ability to master an extremely tricky task: maintaining a grip on teenagers' notoriously fickle affections. Teens spend less time watching television than any other demographic group, approximately 25% fewer hours in prime than 18-49s. And their attention is increasingly splintered by the Internet, videogames and even multi-tasking cellphones. But 13- to 17-year-olds will spend $34.5 billion this year, according to market-research firm Harris Interactive, and certain advertisers—movie studios, cosmetics firms, electronics makers—are perpetually desperate to get their wares in front of them. Which is why, despite the risks that have wrecked hopes for worthy but ratings-challenged shows like My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks, networks are always willing to take another shot.

With The O.C., Schwartz is chronicling the Newport Beach surf-and-party culture that he witnessed while a student at the University of Southern California—before dropping out to try his hand at writing TV pilots, emboldened by selling a movie script to Columbia in his junior year. His pitch to Fox for The O.C. included a collage of surfing and movie photos (Sixteen Candles, The Outsiders,etc.), a poste that now hangs in his office near an oversized “O.C.”-emblazoned red gumball machine that sits beside his desk.

“When you're cooking up a show, you're like, 'Yeah, well if it's huge, I will have a giant gumball machine in my office so I'll know I've arrived,'” he says, with a wry smile. “But this is beyond my wildest dreams, actually.”

The O.C. was indeed “huge” for Fox —especially when it got an American Idol lead-in on Wednesdays midway through its first season—but the show, while still performing well, is nonetheless slipping in its sophomore year. In 2003-4, the show pulled in a 6.9 rating/21 share with viewers 12-17. So far this season, the numbers have taken a pronounced dip in that demographic, to a 4.1/13.

Much of the drop can be attributed to a simple change of venue on the schedule this fall: Fox, bidding to establish a Thursday-night beachhead, moved the hit show opposite CBS' Survivor powerhouse and launched a massive marketing campaign in conjunction with Warner Bros., which owns the show.

“We knew we were going to take a hit on Thursday nights. Fox knew it, and that was a risk they were going to take,” Schwartz says. The network's numbers in that time slot have markedly improved over last year (up 82% with 18-49s and 86% with 12-17s) even though The O.C.'s have not.

But even with less daunting competition, The O.C. would still face the challenge of any young-skewing drama: how to become a long-running success (Beverly Hills 90210 ran for 10 years) and not another Felicity, which looked like a major hit initially but slowly waned in teens' esteem.

The O.C. sailed into the young-adult Zeitgeist last season with an approach that paid plenty of attention to the usual staples of young TV drama: sexual attraction and the labyrinths of adolescent emotions. But the package was presented with thoroughly ironic, post-modern winks to the audience. (In an episode earlier this season, the geek-turned-heartthrob character Seth Cohen, played by Adam Brody, wonders with post-drunk chagrin whether he produced as much vomit as “the little girl in The Sixth Sense or the big fat guy in Monty Python?” O.C. aficionados know that Mischa Barton, the actress who plays Seth's wild-child neighbor Marissa, was the spooky kid in The Sixth Sense.) Hip cultural references and music by buzz-worthy bands such as The Killers and Modest Mouse are also liberally ladled into the mix to clinch The O.C.'s coolness credentials.

But will it all be enough for The O.C. to sustain its success? Shows that live by cool can die by cool if they start hitting false notes—a pitfall The O.C. has largely avoided so far.

“Teens are very good at sussing out when you don't understand their experience,” says Stacey Lynn Koerner, an executive vice president at media-services company Initiative. Shows pursuing young audiences “need to be drawn in a way that sort of screams, 'I know who this target is.'”

That fact that teens are a moving target with changeable tastes might make programming for them difficult, but it is also, of course, why advertisers endlessly chase them.

The most concerted effort to date to corral teenage viewers was the launch of The WB network in 1995, with the goal of positioning itself as a destination for teens—mainly females—by showcasing inventive youth-targeted fare, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed and Dawson's Creek. The network's business plan was to get an advertising premium with a 12- to 24-year-old audience. To accomplish that goal, WB execs decided to carve out a creative niche as well, jettisoning the TV stereotype of teens as crazed with sex and shopping.

“We felt like we had a responsibility to portray that experience as realistically as possible and with empowerment,” says former WB CEO Jordan Levin.

The approach proved so successful that, now firmly established, The WB is attempting to expand by aging up to 18-34s and signing development deals with such producers as Jerry Bruckheimer and David E. Kelley, who have solid records attracting mass audiences. Strong teen shows, such as One Tree Hill, remain important to the network, but The WB is aiming for a “subtle shift in the tone and age of its characters,” says WB President of Entertainment David Janollari.

Levin, who was squeezed out last summer in the network's new push, has this advice for anyone going after the adolescent demo: “Like with any teenager, the key to success is to rebel against the rules that have been put in place.”

The rules that The WB broke were largely put in place in the 1980s by Aaron Spelling, executive producer of Beverly Hills 90210 and patriarch of the teen drama (just one genre among many mined by the TV legend). But these days, Spelling Television is happily dancing to The WB's tune. Last month, the network ordered a tenth season of the company's family drama 7th Heaven. The WB also renewed for a second season Spelling's Summerland, comfort-food programming about kids who move from Kansas to live with their aunt in Southern California, where they learn lots of worthwhile lessons about growing up.

The show, starring Lori Laughlin, who is also a producer, is light-years from the hipness of The O.C., but, like the Fox hit, Summerland is a sophomore show and trying to retain the attention of a largely adolescent audience.

The O.C.'s young characters constantly discuss their emotions, something Summerland tends to avoid. Executive producer Remi Aubuchon says, “I'm adamant about teen characters not talking about their feelings. It's a full-time job just experiencing those feelings.”

Summerland's 13-episode debut season last summer earned solid ratings: a 2.7 rating/9 share with viewers 12-17; returning for a second season on Feb. 28, it garnered a 3.5 /10 with viewers 12-17.

The octogenarian Spelling, who has a pinball—not gumball—machine festooned with images from his shows beside his desk, says: “The thing about television today is, if young people are in a show and the audience likes them, thumbs up. But if it's older actors or actresses—no effect whatsoever.” Teen girls are giving a big thumbs-up to Summerland's 17-year-old star, Jesse McCartney. He is a new favorite on Teen People magazine's Trendspotter list, based on surveys of 14,000 readers, says the magazine's Entertainment Director Laura Morgan.

Summerland and The O.C.—one the product of a Hollywood institution, the other from a wunderkind upstart—are two of the few recent bright spots in the teen genre. ABC passed on a second season of Life as We Know It, which couldn't hold its own on Thursday nights. UPN's Veronica Mars, beloved by critics, has failed to gain traction. The WB's new drama The Mountain tanked this fall and was cancelled after its last episode aired in January. And Fox's Point Pleasant has faltered since its January premiere.

The cancellation of most new shows is part of the TV business, but the attrition in the teen genre can be pitiless. Adults who used to like a show but quit watching don't tend to turn around and mock anyone who still watches it, but that goes with the territory when courting teenagers. Having grown up over the past decade being spoon-fed teen drama mostly by The WB, teens are savvy—if not inured—to the melodramatic conceits of typical teen fare. But it's a delicate balancing act trying to be innovative without alienating a wide audience.

TheO.C.'s Schwartz thinks he and his producing partners, most notably Stephanie Savage, Bob DeLaurentiis and the mono-named McG, found the answer by crafting his show as a “Trojan horse,” he says, meaning “beautiful surf, sun, mansions and parties on the outside, soulful, quirky characters as the soldiers inside.” His attention to detail extends even to picking the up-and-coming music on the show—a trademark of The O.C. but also another area where one wrong move can invite derision. Schwartz describes The O.C. as a “soapedy”: half soap opera, half comedy. “That's how you do a show like this in the 21st century,” he says. “We live in a post-everything universe, and everyone's hyper self-aware.”

But despite his affection for “post-everything” irony, Schwartz cautions, “You don't want it to feel like you're trying so hard to be hip that it's just, like, exclusionary. If you're too hip, the parents don't know what the hell you're talking about.” There's much in the storylines for adults, too, with the complicated lives of the teens' parents heavily woven into the plot. Lest he seem too calculating, though, Schwartz says the grown-up angle was not “cooked up in a demographics lab.”

Not that he doesn't constantly tweak The O.C. in an effort to keep the audience hooked. With the chemistry of what makes a teen hit stay a hit such a mystery, inattention can be deadly. The show's downward ratings drift this season may be traced in part to Schwartz's distraction heading into The O.C.'s second year, when his hands-on creative guidance slipped as he worked on another project.

“There was a lot of pressure in trying to do a new show,” he says. “I tried to do two things at once and just felt like I need to be here full-time.” Schwartz recently shelved the project, called Athens, about college life in a New England town, after Fox urged him to rework it as a direct O.C. spinoff (he wants to come up with a more “organic” spinoff, he says).

The first half of this season frustrated some O.C. fans as Schwartz and his team introduced new characters, young and older, and toyed with relationships established over last season's 27 episodes. He wants the show to keep evolving, he says, without alienating devotees. (He'd like the show to run only about five years, he says, to avoid exhausting the creative possibilities. Five also happens to be the golden number for syndication.)

“This year's been a tremendous learning experience for me, much more so than last year, which was all about just like jumping in the pool and trying to swim,” he says. “Trying to take a show from being a one-year phenomenon kind of thing and stretching it out in the long haul, I was loath to come out and repeat myself out of the gate and do a Mad magazine version of the show, a parody.” He's also loath to echo the Mad magazine catchphrase, “What, me worry?.” In the business of catching and keeping teenage viewers, TV producers have to be a lot like the kids' parents: anxious, even when things are going well.