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'One Tree Hill' hits its hundredth episode

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RELATED: Advertisers might have saved 'Hill'

It was originally supposed to be a movie called "Ravens." But teen-angst drama "One Tree Hill" (which survived the WB's shuttering to end up on the CW mid-run) is more that just an improbable mainstay on the network primetime landscape. As it reaches its 100th-episode milestone tonight at 9, the gentle and unassuming hour could be called revolutionary for both its seamless interweaving of popular music and a risky strategy hatched in its fifth season.

The show began as an ensemble chronicle of the lives of a group of sensitive high school kids in the fictional town of Tree Hill, N.C., a paradigm that lasted for four seasons. But in January, the show leapt ahead in time, morphing into a study of four postcollege adults.

Credit the vision of "Hill" creator/executive producer Mark Schwahn, whose decision it was to jump forward four years. As a result, the cast (led by Chad Michael Murray) now plays their actual ages.

"It's been amazing for the actors, and for us," Schwahn emphasizes. "We've already seen a ratings bump upward. But beyond that, this has revitalized the show and made everybody excited again. The incredible thing is we've done it in a season that usually kills shows like mine, when things spiral down after they've left high school. So we just decided to pretend that college never happened."

Both CW entertainment president Dawn Ostroff and Warner Bros. Television Production president Peter Roth had more than a few reservations about the whole leap-forward-four-years idea when Schwahn originally pitched it. "We really weren't sure about this at all," Roth admits, "but Mark stuck to his guns and we supported him. It turned out to be our best decision of the year." Adds Ostroff: "They're now able to explore a whole new side of the characters. It's breathed new life into the show."

Ostroff and Roth had been conditioned to expect the unexpected from a series that hasn't played by the rules from its September 2003 premiere. "One Tree Hill" (Schwahn took the name from a song title on U2's 1987 album "The Joshua Tree") has survived by being true to the creator's Midwestern roots and emphasizing a quieter vibe than that found on self-consciously hip, teen-focused shows like "The O.C." and "Dawson's Creek."

The show has also made music not merely a featured player but a significant part of the "One Tree Hill" zeitgeist. Music from unknown artists and up-and-comers alike has been incorporated to evoke mood, to accentuate plot points and ratchet up the poignancy of a series that began its life telling a story about high school basketball and the ties that bind a pair of half brothers. Arguably, "Hill" has been more of a friend to the recording industry than any other show on TV in years, maybe decades.

This is not exactly an accident. "I came out to California as a musician, not a writer," says Schwahn. "Music has always been my favorite part of the show. Nothing makes a scene come alive like the right piece of music. We look at it as a journey of musical discovery."

There hasn't been a specific effort to break new artists on the show, insists executive producer Joe Davola. But at the same time, he says, "We also haven't gone for names. The only thing that matters is that a piece of music fit perfectly in a scene."

Ostroff agrees, adding, "They don't just pick the safe choices. The ones they merge into the story lines always wind up breaking out in their own right. They're almost always ahead of the musical curve."

Still, Schwahn has been accused of being a shill by promoting artists in-house, i.e.

Warner Bros. artists. "It turned out that when we researched it, something like maybe 8% of the people we'd had do music on the show were Warner Bros.," he notes. "People were looking for a scandal, and there wasn't one. I mean, we said no to a Green Day song that won a Grammy, 'Boulevard of Broken Dreams,' because a $500 song from an unsigned artist worked better in the scene."

That the series has done wonders for the careers of many a struggling/unsung musician is undeniable. That list is headed by one Gavin DeGraw, who soared to platinum status after his song "I Don't Want to Be" became "Hill's" theme song. And this season "Hill" exposure has already turned an unknown named Kate Voegele into an cult sensation on the strength of her track "Kindly Unspoken" from her debut album, "Don't Look Away." (In a Season 5 six-episode arc, Voegele portrayed a musician in a band led by a character played by -- wait for it -- Kevin Federline.)

"Kate had sold literally 250 copies of her album the week before she debuted on 'One Tree Hill,'" says Davola. "The following week, it had jumped to 11,000."

That's surely a testament to the loyal core following of a series that nearly didn't make it out of early infancy. Rushed onto the WB air in fall 2003 with virtually no promotion after having been originally earmarked for midseason, "Hill" debuted with a microscopic .7 household rating. (The season did eventually pull out a 2.4 rating, with nearly 2 million viewers between 12-34.)

"We were the lowest-rated premiere of any show that season, and maybe in several seasons," Schwahn remembers. "(Former WB chief executive) Jordan Levin was undecided whether to keep us on the air or just put up a test pattern."

But with little else to put in its place, the WB stuck with "Hill" and saw an increased audience for the series, which is produced in Wilmington, N.C. "It really became a triumph of persistence and incremental growth," Roth observes. "When they finally gave it a compatible lead-in behind 'Gilmore Girls' in Season 2, it started to take off."

Nonetheless, "Hill" was a show on the bubble when the WB and UPN merged into the CW in September 2006. "And we're obviously pleased in hindsight to have stuck with it," Ostroff admits.

"Mark's passion is the reason this show was able to live on after the merger," credits fellow exec producer Mike Tollin. "He's been really skillful at evolving the characters and amazingly in tune with what's contemporary musically.

His music, and his real-world, blue-collar sensibility, have made this show timeless."

Brian Robbins, also an executive producer on the series, recalls that during the show's audience-challenged months, "we'd expect to show up one day and find the doors of the editing room padlocked shut. It's pretty amazing now to think we've outlived a network along with a lot of critics who never expected us to survive."

Not only has "Hill" survived, it has exceeded expectations in its off-net afterlife since Warner Bros. Domestic Cable Distribution launched it in reruns on Disney's SoapNet in May 2007. Brian Frons, president of daytime for Disney-ABC Television Group, discloses that the show brought in some 1.7 million total viewers its first month on the air with a median age of 24 (half the network's average viewer age). And in early March, the CW placed an order for a sixth season of the series.

All of this tends to leave Schwahn a bit bewildered. He simply didn't expect to be talking about a 100th "One Tree Hill" episode after having barely outrated test patterns early on.

"We've thrived on being the underdog all along," he stresses. "We've fought hard for this, and I guess survived by being the Little Engine That Could. We're all still there together just shoveling in the coal."