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TV writer and producer Josh Schwartz makes shows that appeal to young, pop culture-savvy viewers — The O.C., Gossip Girl, Chuck. That means he’s landed headfirst in the changing reality of how that audience consumes content. He spoke this week at the NAB Show in Las Vegas about creating television in the digital age.
Schwartz addressed the matter of his shows’ online audiences not measured by Nielsen — knowing that they rank highly on iTunes and Hulu but not having specifics about how many people watch them there. He wasn’t particularly riled up about the situation, but then again his shows have thus far managed to stay on the air (Chuck awaits its fate, but Gossip Girl‘s cultural phenomenon status seems to eclipsed its relatively weak numbers). Of current Nielsen ratings, Schwartz quipped, “It’s like if Rod Stewart put out a Christmas album and it was No. 1 on Billboard.”
Schwartz said he disagreed with the CW’s decision to take down free streaming episodes of Gossip Girl last year in an attempt to drive live viewer numbers up. “We fought them on that. People who watch online don’t always also watch on TV,” he said. (The CW eventually came around and resumed posting episodes on its site, where they are “disproportionately popular,” according to Schwartz. We have a little theory that has something to do with the show being a guilty pleasure.)
Schwartz said a recent Rolling Stone cover for the stars of Gossip Girl was a tacit acknowledgment of the changed media climate: “This is narrowcasting, not broadcasting.”
While Schwartz said ratings aren’t necessarily his top concern as a creator, he did acknowledge the increasing role that product integration plays in the creative process. Sponsorships tend to fit naturally with his shows. Chuck is “set at a Best Buy for all intents and purposes — every inch of that store is ‘put your ad here,'” while Gossip Girl‘s characters constantly communicate with each other over phones.
Sometimes an over-the-top sponsorship can pay dividends, too. An episode of Gossip Girl where a character drank Vitamin Water in front of a Vitamin Water display at a Vitamin Water-sponsored party “was a little bit probably glaring,” Schwartz said, but the Vitamin Water sponsorship single-handedly paid for on-location shooting of the full episode in the Hamptons, which he said was good for the show’s storyline.
And fans are savvier about product integration than ever before; Chuck diehards are organizing a campaign to buy Subway sandwiches on the night of the show’s season finale next week in an attempt to influence NBC via one of the show’s main sponsors.
Schwartz has also dabbled in the brave new world of original online content, but it seems to be just that, dabbling. Warner Bros. gave him the opportunity to create Rockville, CA, filling his desire to make a series around music. Though he didn’t have to spend out of pocket to make the series, and loved the freedom to create a show without notes from a network, the budget scale was way below his stratosphere. “I think I lost money buying El Pollo Loco for the crew,” he said.
It hasn’t yet been decided if Rockville (which we thought was pretty good) will have a second season. Schwartz said the biggest factor would be his and other participants’ availability — and added that since he cast an actor from Rockville in the new Gossip Girl spinoff, the timing probably isn’t right.