It's almost certain that the series, still the most-watched program on MTV, will continue to a fifth season. But the new predicament raises a bigger question: Do fans even need to watch the show anymore to get a "Hills" fix?
The show's executive producer Adam DiVello said of course they do. "If anything, it keeps the awareness out there and gives you a sneak peek of what's coming. If viewers want to see the action unfold for themselves, they can't get it anywhere else but on MTV."
Ratings suggest that may or may not be the case. Though it's impossible not to see one or more of the cast members in every issue of Us Weekly or OK! magazine, viewership for the show has softened. In its Season 3 heyday, "The Hills" averaged 3.9 million viewers; the current season is averaging 3 million.
Meanwhile, the appetite for "The Hills" stars hasn't let up. "Extra" senior executive producer Lisa Gregorisch-Dempsey said the entertainment newsmagazine runs at least two "Hills"-related stories a week and boasts staffers who "travel in the same circles" as several of the cast members. "There is a show going on around 'the show,' and it's very much in demand," she said.
News of Conrad and Brescia's alleged fling, first reported on Oct. 3, will just now be shown in tonight's episode (Nov. 24). Since the story broke, a real-time soap opera has taken place in the media, making this airing either a highly anticipated epilogue or old news, depending on how you like your "Hills."
In an interview, Patridge said she first heard the rumor about the possible betrayal from a mutual friend of hers and Justin's. She tried to phone Brescia and Conrad but could reach neither. (Conrad declined to comment for this story and Brescia did not return a request seeking comment.) Their avoidance of Patridge made her suspicious, and then it was too late.
One week later, Perez Hilton made the rumor public on his blog, a virtual shot heard round the world. Though he has never followed "The Hills" on TV himself, Hilton plays a crucial role in feeding the frenzy surrounding the show, which in turn drives traffic to his blog. Delighted to keep his readers updated and better sourced than the average "Hills" viewer, he says the Conrad-Brescia scoop is solid. "I believe they hooked up, definitely," Hilton said. "One of the reasons [Audrina] believed it is because there was drama at a Fourth of July party where Lauren and Justin got flirty. The seed of doubt had already been planted."
That same day, Conrad blogged a public response on her MySpace page, accessible to any and all online lookers. "Audrina," she wrote. "We promised we wouldn't let people get into our ears and make us fight. You KNOW I didn't do this . . . " Within hours, Patridge then replied on her official website, "I'm not sure what to believe," calling the rumors "very confusing and hurtful."
And Hilton, as a matter of course, linked to both websites with the news.
In the days that followed, the online battle was further ignited by Patridge's interviews with Ellen DeGeneres, in which she told the talk show host she still didn't know what to believe, and Ryan Seacrest on his KIIS-FM morning show, at which point she revealed that she no longer believed the gossip. At the same time, Conrad denied the hookup to Us Weekly and In Touch magazine.
All throughout the developing narrative, Spencer Pratt, the resident villain on "The Hills" and the boyfriend of Conrad's former best friend Heidi Montag, was accused by both Patridge and Conrad of being Hilton's source. (He denies it.)
So why did Patridge and Conrad take the spat to the Web? Pratt suspects "they're using their drama to pump their websites." Gossip plays a "huge role in the show's upkeep," he said.
Patridge said she responded online only because Conrad had addressed her there. "I had to confront it some way," but she didn't want the news out in the first place. "If Lauren and I were really friends, why would she write to me on her MySpace instead of talking directly to me?"
DiVello would prefer that feuds like this one didn't erupt online. "The firsthand experience should be the show, but they're human. They're going to react."
"The Hills" still ranks as cable's No. 1 original series among young women, and DiVello said he can't complain about occasionally being beat. With only 22 minutes to fill each week, it's impossible to cover everything, and producers choose to focus narrowly on the personal lives of the cast rather than the Hollywood reality of them as celebrities. For example, Conrad has a clothing line and has been photographed going out with a possible beau, actor Kyle Howard, neither of which has been mentioned on the show.
The ancillary coverage, DiVello said, is a brand-building benefit. "Sometimes we get ahead of stories, and sometimes they get ahead of us, but I don't think it hurts when that happens. The media coverage complements the series."
At the same time, it has also made Conrad weary of the attention. Last month, she told "Extra" she's ready to call it quits -- "Five years on TV is a really, really long time. . . . It's hard to have an actual friendship be torn apart in the media," she said. But two weeks ago, Patridge told "Access Hollywood" that the series had been renewed for a fifth season. (MTV would not confirm the news.)
Perhaps the first real test of "The Hills" as hype machine will be to see if the attention translates to its spinoff "The City," which will follow Conrad's on-screen sidekick Whitney Port as she follows her fashion career to New York. Port has for the most part, however, kept out of the tabloids.
But DiVello predicts "The City" will do well for the same reason that "The Hills" continues to attract audiences. "Viewers still related to our cast and their emotional highs and lows. They're more famous now, but they're still real people, and this is the real story of their lives."
Martin is a Times staff writer.