It's the CW's dirty little secret: In its seventh season, "One Tree Hill" is watched by more people than the network's "it" show, "Gossip Girl." It always has been.
The success, hushed though it has been, has come despite major upheavals to the show, a sort of earnest older sister to younger, hipper series such as "90210" and "Gossip." Since launching in 2003, "One Tree Hill" has occupied five time slots, switched networks and survived a risky plot decision to jump its high school-age characters four years into the future.
This year, the show is dealing with yet another blow: In May, actors Chad Michael Murray and Hilarie Burton, who played the show's romantic leads, Lucas and Peyton, decided not to return for the new season after heated contract negotiations.
And yet "One Tree Hill" is still a draw. With little network promotion, the show is delivering an average of 2.4 million viewers this season, a bigger haul than CW's heavily marketed "Melrose Place."
Network President of Entertainment Dawn Ostroff calls it her little engine that could. "No matter where you put it, viewers follow." So why do you never hear about it?
Few, if any, gushing press releases go out about "One Tree Hill," which began its life on the old WB as an 11th-hour replacement for a postponed crime drama. Its initial conceit -- stepbrothers embroiled in battle on and off the high school basketball court -- didn't stick, and ratings were low until story lines evolved into a sentimental, super-sudsy melodrama concerning the brothers' larger group of friends living in fictional Tree Hill, N.C.
It's decidedly less sexy than the Upper East Side, the hotbed of sin on Melrose, or even a town of hungry vampires. Add to that, the show films in Wilmington, N.C., so its young stars aren't followed around by the paparazzi the way Blake Lively and Leighton Meester are; "Gossip Girl" has the edge among female fans, making it more valuable to advertisers; and, well, "One Tree Hill" has never been a critics' darling.
Creator Mark Schwahn can laugh about it now that his series is nearing its 200th episode. He keeps a telephone book-size binder of its reviews and clippings from over the years in his desk, and remembers being unable to find a positive quote to put on the Season 1 DVD box set. "If you look at the box, it says something like, 'A guiltier pleasure than "Melrose Place," ' " he said. "I was like, 'That's the best we can do?' " He can still quote Variety's review too, which began, "This tree needs to be replanted," and said one critic renamed it "Inbred Creek."
Schwahn added: "My parking spot for the first two years we were on the air said Olsen Twins."
But somewhere along the way young people latched onto -- and never let go of -- "One Tree Hill's" improbable blend of angsty, pop song-laden love triangles and saccharine endings, bookended by moments of total madness. Tree Hill is the kind of town where the hot guys are sweet, the mean girls make the best friends, and your son can get kidnapped and chased down in a cornfield by a psycho nanny who's after your husband.
Mostly, however, Schwahn says, it's heartfelt.
"Call it painfully earnest, but for most of the country, earnest isn't painful," Schwahn said. "I won't apologize or make excuses for wearing our hearts on our sleeves." He even gave Peyton and Lucas a proper goodbye, sending the just-married couple off into the sunset with their new baby girl in tow.
New cast member Shantel VanSanten, who plays the photographer Quinn, called the show's Middle America appeal its very staying power. "I'm from Minnesota, and both my grandma and my friends can watch the show and relate to the issues because most of it is about real life -- just not real life in L.A. or New York."
That heartland feel will remain this season, though nearly all of the characters have become bona fide celebrities -- Brooke a multimillion-dollar fashion designer, Julian a successful film director, Haley a pop singer and Nathan an NBA star.
"The show this year is about the obstacles facing adults in their 20s and even late 20s," said Sophia Bush, who plays Brooke. "No one can relate to being a rich fashion designer, but everyone at that age thinks, 'Who am I becoming? Where is my life going? Who do I want to spend forever with?' You get the escapist fun with the grounded drama."
Austin Nichols, who last starred in the title role in HBO's "John From Cincinnati," said he signed on for his second season with the show after he persuaded Schwahn to let long-distance couple Brooke and Julian come together for "a passionate, 'Fountainhead'-like romance." In the season's first episode, the two were making sweet love on the beach a la "From Here to Eternity."
"We can go for things like that on 'One Tree Hill,' a benefit of being sort of the ugly stepchild on the network," Nichols said.
The show has even gotten away with murder. Paul Johansson's demonic dad, Dan, overcame his character's killing his brother several seasons ago and was reborn as a televangelist. Johansson said Dan really paid for becoming so bad; he once had his heart eaten by a dog, literally, after the organ fell on the floor on its way to a transplant.
"Sometimes, I just put a script down and go, 'Mark's sick.' He's sick, you know? But it's an evil genius," Johansson said. "We're never boring."
It's no accident that fans have followed the show over the years on different nights and time periods. They're rabid for good reason. Schwahn and fellow executive producer Joe Davola have taken a DIY approach to promoting "One Tree Hill" from the beginning, when Davola decided that rather than hiring an assistant, he'd bring in someone to help them reach out to the show's fans. The pair still run their own series website, Facebook page and Twitter accounts.
In advance of Season 7, they prepared 18 behind-the-scenes pieces for the Web to introduce fans to new cast members and to tease stories.
"I produce 'Smallville' as well, so I knew all about the power of fans," Davola said. "From the beginning, we knew we had to control our own destiny." They've also put the actors to work, sending them on mall tours, charity events and any number of promotional appearances to help keep fans coming back.
"I've never minded," said James Lafferty, who plays Nathan. "It's nice to interact with the viewers, to know that someone appreciates what we're doing all the way in North Carolina."
Schwahn and Davola are also hands-on when it comes to writing and producing the show. Schwahn picks the music, they both direct and edit, they even cut their own promos (a response to having Season 5's cliffhanger finale ruined by a network-cut preview). "We have a high level of quality control," Davola said. "We don't phone it in."
"They've always been very inventive and clever producers," Ostroff said, "and the truth of the matter is they've reinvented the show multiple times in these bold ways and it's always worked. They get short shrift, but what they've done is worthy of praise."
Still, it's a lot of work for the executive producers. "I'd love to be the biggest show on television, I'm not above coveting. But at the same time, one of the reasons we are here is because we flew under the radar," Schwahn said.
'One Tree Hill'
When: 8 tonight
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for coarse language)