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THE HIT THAT ISN’T

Times Staff Writer

ON “Gossip Girl,” the deliciously catty prep school drama that debuted on the CW this fall, Upper East Side socialites track each other’s misdeeds on an anonymously penned blog that has the power to make or break reputations. When reformed wild child Serena van der Woodsen was snapped buying a pregnancy test in a recent episode, the photo zoomed through cyberspace and popped up on her classmates’ cellphones within moments.

The show’s young fans have shown a similar affinity for new media, helping to consistently make “Gossip Girl” the most downloaded television program on iTunes. But despite the program’s online popularity, the network hasn’t been able to translate the Web buzz into substantial TV ratings. Even after a marketing push, just 2.6 million viewers on average tuned in to watch the show’s first 13 episodes -- about 500,000 of them teens, its target demographic.

“It’s sort of become the first show that has managed to achieve some level of cultural permeation and success in the new world order where ratings don’t really seem to apply,” said executive producer Josh Schwartz.

For the young network, however, which made “Gossip Girl” the centerpiece of its sophomore season, ratings very much matter.

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When viewers watch on different platforms, “we don’t make the kind of money we make when it’s on the air,” said Dawn Ostroff, the CW’s president of entertainment. “That’s something still being figured out: How can we take advantage of viewership shifting to different places?”

Until then, the network needs to increase the traditional television audience for the glossy drama, and it believes it has an opening now that most scripted shows have been sidelined by the Writers Guild of America strike. Beginning Monday, the CW is giving the teen soap a second airing, packaging the old episodes with bonus material in the hopes of reviving the underperforming drama.

That the CW is still trying to boost interest in a program originally regarded as one of the hottest new entrants of the season speaks to the difficulty in gauging how new media are reshaping television watching. That’s caused substantial anxiety in the entertainment industry, which is locked in a bitter labor dispute about how to value the digital space.

“If you believe that all the activity, hype and buzz on the Web translates into viewership, then ‘Snakes on a Plane’ should have been a blockbuster,” said Jeffrey Cole, director of the USC Annenberg School for Communication’s Center for the Digital Future, referring to the much-hyped 2006 movie.

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“The disconnect seems to be with teens who love to speculate and comment online but rarely turn it into direct viewing,” added Cole, who advises networks and advertisers on the changing landscape. “Teens, while still interested in television, are less interested in television than any generation that has come before them.”

Indeed, “Gossip Girl’s” status at the bottom of the weekly Nielsen ratings chart belies the show’s online activity, executives said. “When you look at all the ways people are getting ‘Gossip Girl’ episodes, whether on TV or TiVo or streaming or downloading it, clearly there’s a very strong core group of viewers,” Ostroff said. “Our job is to start getting the show broadened out a bit.”

On the move

TO do so, the CW gathered the cast at a posh Hollywood club on a recent warm morning to shoot segments for the new campaign. The winsome young stars -- dressed in Chanel and other top labels -- lounged on a sea-green ottoman in an ornately gilded room, delivering lines written by the network’s marketing staff. The group hadn’t been together since production in New York shut down in December, and they giggled and bantered as producers conferred between shots.

“Save the energy for the takes, please!” shouted a harried director.

The material will be used in “Gossip Girl Revealed,” a package of DVD-like extras such as outtakes and cast interviews that will be wrapped around the first few repeats. As part of the relaunch, the CW also moved the drama to a temporary Monday time slot from Wednesday nights to avoid competing with Fox’s “American Idol.”

“I think it’s a fantastic idea,” said Blake Lively, who plays Serena. “So much of our show has been based around the buzz -- it’s kind of emulated what happens on the show with the text messaging and online, how these kids have become popular. And if you go away for a while, it’s harder to come back and be the ‘it’ person in school or the ‘it’ show. So it’s important to try to keep the buzz around it.”

The success of the relaunch is also pivotal for the CW, a nascent network that was formed by the merger of the WB and UPN in 2006. This season marked the first in which the network aired its own programs, and executives did not hide their initial excitement about “Gossip Girl.”

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Based on the bestselling book series by Cecily von Ziegesar, the drama came with a built-in audience and a look inside the rarefied world of Manhattan’s wealthy youth. The upper-class teens contend with the angst of having too much too soon, amid luxurious debutante balls and high-fashion shopping. At the center of the drama is Serena, the former Queen Bee of her elite private school, who returned after a mysterious absence to find her throne occupied by her onetime BFF, Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester), angry about her abrupt departure. Their catfight is avidly documented on the Gossip Girl blog, which breathlessly relates Serena’s relationship with Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley), a good boy from the wrong side of town (i.e., Brooklyn) and Blair’s own romantic troubles.

Some critics chided the program for its depictions of excess, including the copious amounts of underage drinking and casual sex, but others praised it as this season’s best guilty pleasure.

When the show drew middling ratings, many in the industry were surprised. “Gossip Girl” was one of “the shows that we had higher hopes for that we really believed in,” said Andy Donchin, director of national broadcast at the media firm Carat USA. “And we were just disappointed that it didn’t do better.”

One of the major hurdles the show faced was its Wednesday night competition: two of the most anticipated new shows of the new season, ABC’s “Private Practice” and NBC’s “Bionic Woman,” along with CBS’ highly rated “Criminal Minds.”

Ostroff said she knew it would be tough to break out amid the fall offerings but felt that the CW had to launch “Gossip Girl” then to maintain the network’s presence, and she has hopes it will grow in a second season. (The show got an early full-season order but has not yet been formally picked up for another year.) She noted that the program has been the No. 1 new broadcast show this season among female teens. And its audience -- with a median age of 26.2 -- is the youngest watching broadcast television.

Despite the low ratings, the high concentration of those hard-to-reach viewers has kept it appealing for advertisers; Verizon Wireless and Victoria’s Secret have done product integration deals, and the movie “27 Dresses” recently advertised in a content wrap, a multi-part commercial that frames the drama.

“We did very well with teens, and that’s where a lot of these shows all start,” Ostroff said. “At the end of the day, this show is getting the network so much buzz. You feel the groundswell. You know it’s out there in the zeitgeist.” The program’s feature-laden website -- which includes postings from Gossip Girl, who narrates the program, and a Second Life portal -- was in recent weeks among the top 10 most visited television show websites, according to the research firm Hitwise. Visitors to the site initiated 6 million streams of the shows’ episodes so far this season.

“Our viewers are early adopters of those technologies, and what you’re seeing on ‘Gossip Girl’ you’re going to see more and more on shows that skew older in the future,” said executive producer Stephanie Savage.

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“There’s all this anecdotal evidence that it’s much, much bigger than what the ratings would indicate,” Schwartz added. “For us, it’s taken the pressure off of the ‘live or die by what the ratings are the next morning.’ ”

But traditional broadcasters can’t afford to forgo TV viewership for online watching, Cole said. “There’s no way to monetize it yet,” he said. “The primary value is to engage viewers.”

With the new promotional campaign, marketing executives are hoping to exploit the growing popularity of the “Gossip Girl” actors. Before the show launched, they were largely unknown except for Lively, who starred in the movie “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.” Now her cast mates have joined her as regular fodder for the entertainment magazines and New York gossip columns.

Badgley, who plays Dan, noted that he went from being “virtually nobody” to getting recognized “everywhere I go, pretty much, which is a surreal thing. . . . I think it proves that maybe Nielsen is the only one that’s not watching.”

When the show was shooting in New York, the crowds that gathered to watch grew exponentially as the season went on, the cast said. During one of the last days of production, hundreds of fans -- mostly young girls -- swamped the sidewalks as they shot a scene on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“They had to call in police and bodyguards, because it would take us an hour to get to our trailers because of the floods of people,” Lively said. “That was just really mind-blowing. We literally felt like we were like the Spice Girls, the way these people were screaming and crying.”

Eventually, the industry will figure out a way to measure that kind of following, said Chace Crawford, who plays blueblood Nate Archibald. “I’m proud to be part of a show that’s kind of redefining what it means to be a hit show with today’s younger generation that is very media-savvy,” he said. “I think it could be pushing the envelope of change of the way the Nielsen ratings are viewed.”

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matea.gold@latimes.com


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