When "One Tree Hill" debuted in the fall 2003, creator Mark Schwahn remembers, the ratings were so low that "even my mother didn't know we were on the air."
"We didn't even know if we would get a season two," Schwahn said. "We were the lowest-rated show on any channel the week we debuted, but we were the only show to pick up every week for the next six weeks. We were so low, we were like a test pattern."
But backed by an ardent fan base, who still travel from all over the world to coastal North Carolina in hopes of seeing one of the show's young stars, "One Tree Hill" survived to a sixth season, airing at 9 p.m. Mondays on the CW. It reached the magic 100 episodes needed for syndication in March, and with this season matches the tenure of "Dawson's Creek" -- the teen-angst drama that preceded "One Tree Hill" in Wilmington and on the WB.
"When we were in our second and third seasons, it was not fathomable to me that we would be here today, in our sixth season," actor James Lafferty said.
Schwahn originally pitched the show as a movie titled "The Ravens," but it became a series about two half-brothers -- played by Lafferty and Chad Michael Murray -- in the fictional town Tree Hill, N.C., who compete both on and off the basketball court.
Originally slated as a midseason replacement on what was then the WB network, "One Tree Hill" moved to a September debut after another pilot fell through. The show has never been a critical favorite, and the actors don't hesitate to note how they have succeeded even without much support from their own network.
"We have never been supported by a big PR push or big marketing campaign," said Sophia Bush, who as Brooke Davis competes for the affections of Murray's Lucas Scott.
"We really have never been anybody's baby the way that shows that sort of have a guarantee of multiple seasons generally are," she said. "So for us, it's really been every year about our fans and their loyalty bringing us back and putting us back on the air."
Still, the show was growing stale when Schwahn decided before the start of season five to move everything forward by four years, skipping the characters' time in college. It avoided the awkward end of "Dawson's Creek," which had to come up with reasons for its graduated high schoolers to either stay in town or find repeated ways to stay in touch after leaving for college or out-of-town jobs.
"When Mark said, 'I want to do this,' I was so relieved," said the 26-year-old Bush. "The last thing I wanted to do was go to college on the show. We've all seen the college years, and they don't work. Ever."
The aging of "One Tree Hill" reinvigorated both the actors and the show's fans. The average ratings rebounded to 3.5 million viewers in season five, the same as in the show's first.
"When we made the decision, I think everybody here was excited. I know I was. Just the opportunity to play a little bit closer to your age," said the 27-year-old Murray. "Lucas was a little bit of a whiny 16-year-old. We had to change that up a little bit. And I'm damn happy about it."
The older Brooke is now the owner of her own clothing line, while Lucas is about to publish his second novel. Lafferty's Nathan Scott and Bethany Joy Galeotti's Haley James are struggling with the trials of marrying and having a child at a young age.
Hilarie Burton's Peyton Sawyer, another love interest for Lucas, is owner of her own company -- Red Bedroom Records. Season five ended with a cliffhanger about whom Lucas would ask to marry, and the premiere showed that Peyton was the one.
"Peyton's gone from being such an extremist in high school, which was hard for me because I'm pretty mellow, to being a calmer adult," said the 26-year-old Burton. "This year has been nice because all of us actors are just happy. We're all having a good time. We're happy with our jobs. We're happy with our lives."
The actors themselves have grown up on the set. Murray and Bush were married briefly in 2005. The 23-year-old Lafferty was only 17 when the pilot was filmed. Burton has settled into Wilmington, where the series is filmed at EUE/Screen Gem Studios, buying a house during the first season and later opening a production company -- Southern Gothic Films.
Asked if a seventh season would interfere with her plans for the production company, Burton said: "You would be surprised at how well I multitask."
The contracts for Burton and the rest of the cast are up at the end of this season, Schwahn and executive producer Joe Davola said the studio and the network are talking about a seventh. After starting in the shadow of "Dawson's Creek," Lafferty concedes he didn't think "One Tree Hill" would last as long.
"We've been able to tell all the stories we wanted to tell and do all the things we wanted to do with our characters and there really is no greater reward than to be able to look back on the past six years and say we did it," he said. "We really made it. Not a lot of shows make it as far as we did."
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