On Saturday afternoon, Emma Murphy, a 16-year-old from Sydney, Australia, gazed at Newport Bay's choppy waters, gripping a Guess purse and a perception of Orange County gleaned solely from the small screen.
Aboard "The O.C. Experience Tour" boat, Emma spotted something that tore her attention from the surrounding yachts to the Balboa Fun Zone.
"Oh my God! That's the Ferris wheel that Ryan and Marissa had their first date on!" she yelled, referring to two main characters on the TV series "The O.C." "I have to go on, Mum."
With a mix of soap opera antics and pop culture smarts, "The O.C." has been a boon to its hometown, culminating the county's transformation from Los Angeles' ho-hum neighbor to a trend-maker perched on the endless Pacific. Its pull was so strong that a county supervisor suggested turning John Wayne Airport into "The O.C. Airport," and when characters ripped on Riverside residents as "white trash," officials in the inland city mulled their legal options.
But in the show's fourth season on Fox, its ratings have plummeted to 97th among prime-time shows, with an audience of 3.7 million, according to recent Nielsen numbers. Up against juggernauts such as "Grey's Anatomy," the show appears close to its demise, with fans posting "Save The O.C." pleas on YouTube. Like a homecoming queen stripped of her tiara, Orange County is facing a future without a series that served as a weekly hourlong infomercial for Newport Beach and has even persuaded families to cross oceans for a firsthand look.
"It makes you dream of living here, in this beautiful atmosphere," said Emma, who sported oversized sunglasses like the show's female characters and begged her mom to buy a pink sweater "like Marissa's." "It was my first look into the lifestyle over here. It's a teenage fantasy."
If Beverly Hills, Miami and other cities tied to television dramas are indicators, Orange County's newfound national brand will last well past the final episode of "The O.C." -- sparking both delight and consternation. Some say getting hitched to the depiction of Newport's bronzed and Botoxed chattering class could box in county image-makers for decades. Just ask officials in Dallas (more on its Texas-sized headaches later).
Simon Hudson, an associate professor at the University of Calgary, has studied how films boost tourism in locales splashed across the screen. Television shows -- sometimes recycled for decades in domestic and international syndication -- appear to have a similar effect, he said.
The Ewing clan, which schemed for more than a dozen seasons on "Dallas" starting in 1978, roped in about half a million tourists a year, according to a study by Hudson and a colleague published in the Journal of Travel Research. Boston toasted the estimated $7 million a year in unpaid advertising that "Cheers" brought to Beantown.
The effect of the small-screen is so strong that Palm Springs officials are already salivating over "Hidden Palms," a show slated as a midseason replacement on the CW network (it's shot mainly in the Phoenix area).
"Films are one-offs and no guarantee -- most of them fail," Hudson said. "Whereas TV series are around for a long, long time."
"Miami Vice," for example, helped turn the Florida metropolis into a playground for bling-toting hip-hop stars.
"Miami was more known as a retirement center; it was dark and shuttered," said David Whitaker, a spokesman for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The late-1980s crime show "caressed that landscape," said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University. "It gave Miami this evil but incredibly seductive look
Similarly, some Orange County officials would like to keep tacking "the" in front of "O.C." As the show pops up on televisions in Britain, Germany and other countries, the Newport Beach Conference & Visitors Bureau has charted a 20% increase in website hits. A map directing tourists to the Balboa and Newport piers and other locations that made "O.C." guest appearances remains the bureau's most-requested item, though most scenes are filmed in Los Angeles County.
"We never really sold ourselves as 'the real O.C.,' but the concept of using the term 'O.C.' has become so ingrained that I think we will continue to use it," said Gary Sherwin, the Newport bureau's president and chief executive.
Beverly Hills still gets calls seeking directions to the Peach Pit, the fictional diner from "Beverly Hills, 90210," which ended its run six years ago. In fact, when the city's visitors bureau director, Kathy Smits, took her first tour of the Museum of Television & Radio in Beverly Hills several years ago, she stumbled upon Japanese tourists crowded around a "90210" episode.
The major distinction between Beverly Hills and the sun-bleached county to the south is that the former is perennially cast in films and TV shows, much like New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago. Orange County, said Thompson, the Syracuse University professor, is probably watching its "television renaissance" fade to black.
The county's other toeholds in public consciousness have been canned ("Arrested Development"); maligned ("Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County") or banished to DVD (the film "Orange County"). There's still the Bravo series "The Real Housewives of Orange County," but O.C.'s hipper-than-thou image can't rest on five older women in Coto de Caza.
"Orange County is going to be called 'The O.C.' for at least a generation," Thompson said. "For the fans, everything they know about Orange County they learned from 'The O.C.' "
Though that might seem tempting to tourism officials, consider how the Ewings have plagued Dallas. The nation's ninth-largest city has been stuck with the show's big-oil, big-hair image like a teenager with a despised childhood nickname.
Though it tried and failed to lure the shooting crew of the coming "Dallas" movie, the city's visitors bureau has otherwise worked to shift its small-screen reputation by wooing travel writers and meeting planners to tour downtown. Its brochures -- slogan: "Live Large. Think Big" -- tout an updated skyline, high-end shopping and dining, and photos that reflect Dallas' diverse population.
In part, the efforts stem from when the bureau asked folks several years ago what images the city's name conjured. Nearly a quarter-century after "Dallas" debuted, officials blanched at the top responses: 3) Tex-Mex and margaritas; 2) giant-haired women; and 1) J.R. Ewing.