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Pretty Little Phenom

It may sound like a teen trifle, but ABC Family’s ”Pretty Little Liars” and its stars are changing how the TV industry measures success — one tweet, keek, and status update at a time.

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Pretty Little Liars isn’t just a teen soap on TV — it’s a teen soap off screen as well. Like most twentysomethings, the show’s quartet of stars — Lucy Hale, 23; Ashley Benson, 23; Shay Mitchell, 25; and Troian Bellisario, 27 — consistently share the minutiae of their lives on social media as if it’s their job. And in many respects, it is. When Hale, Benson, Mitchell, and Bellisario aren’t spending 16-hour days on set, they’re busy dropping photobombs, tweets, status updates, Keek videos, and other kinds of social-media messaging that we hadn’t even heard of. Sure, some of their posts are related to the ABC Family phenomenon — where the girls play an atypically glamorous high school foursome tormented by anonymous and cunning cyberbullies out to punish friends of dead queen bee Alison (Sasha Pieterse). But the cast’s real gift is for unleashing details of a more personal (and often cleverly aspirational) nature on their fans: a photo of Bellisario’s bags packed for a trans-atlantic adventure; a micro-video clip of Benson getting a shot in the butt at the doctor’s office; a video of Mitchell triumphing after a hike to the top of L.A.’s Runyon Canyon; photos of Hale in the studio recording her country album; and — here’s the mother lode — a video of Benson slinking around to Justin Bieber’s ”Boyfriend” with person-of-interest James Franco, whom she may or may not be dating.

Each post serves as a dose of gossip-crack for the female teen audience that PLL courts. ”They’re just honest moments of what their day is like,” explains exec producer I. Marlene King. ”Nobody’s sharing acting techniques — it’s about what they’re eating…. Our actors make our fans so much a part of the process of making PLL. [The viewers] feel more connected than I did when I was watching The Brady Bunch.” Adds exec producer Oliver Goldstick, ”You want these girls as your friends.”

Friends are one thing PLL isn’t short on. The show draws a robust 3.8 million viewers to ABC Family each week, and all that tweeting and Facebooking has led to a colossal digital footprint: PLL has more than 10 million likes on Facebook, a Twitter handle (@ABCFpll) with a million-plus followers, and four stars who collectively reach more than 5.5 million with a tweet or retweet. (Hale alone boasts 2.2 million Twitter followers.) ”Money can’t buy this” type of exposure, says ABC Family’s vice president of marketing Danielle Mullin. ”It’s creating lasting loyalty, which comes back to [the network]. We love social media.” And it clearly loves this show right back.

The characters from Pretty Little Liars were originally dreamed up by the brains at Alloy Entertainment, the prolific production company known for franchise-ready book series that have launched TV shows and movies like The Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl, and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. The PLL novels, which began hitting shelves in 2006, follow four high school students — Aria (Hale), Hanna (Benson), Emily (Mitchell), and Spencer (Bellisario) — who are harassed by the faceless ”A” via text message after their best friend Alison dies mysteriously. On the show, ”A” threatens to reveal the girls’ secrets and relentlessly lures them into harrowing near-death situations in bell towers, lighthouses, and saunas.

By 2009, Warner Bros. was developing the property for TV, with a deal to air on ABC Family. (Warner Bros. and EW are both owned by Time Warner.) Even in its infancy, the show was generating significant online chatter: Fans, spurred on by tweets from the book series’ author, Sara Shepard, made YouTube videos detailing their fantasy casting scenarios a year before actors were being tested. PLL represented a significant shift for its network, which had experienced success with scripted programs like Kyle XY in 2006 and The Secret Life of the American Teenager in 2008. But ABC Family — which began at the Christian Broadcasting Network in 1977 — was hoping the racy new mystery would eradicate its 700 Club image once and for all. ”The secret to the show is the fact that we have stayed tonally extremely true to the books,” King explained to EW in 2011. That meant including controversial — and oftentimes far-fetched — plots featuring frequent deaths, negligent parents, a lesbian main character (Mitchell’s Emily), and forbidden romances, like the one between Aria and her former teacher, Ezra (Ian Harding).

Although PLL‘s world — set in the fictional small town of Rosewood, Pa. — is certainly heightened, the network’s edict was to ground the characters in reality. ”ABC Family creates shows about people who are relatable,” King told EW, ”so we set out to not be Gossip Girl in that way.” The series debuted in June 2010 to 2.5 million viewers, making it an instant hit in basic-cable terms. And while story lines have grown crazier and soapier over the years — one character recently fell down an elevator shaft, and another poisoned Aria with tea — PLL still resonates with teens (as well as twenty- and thirtysomethings) who identify with the gorgeous girls facing seemingly end-of-the-world threats from faceless cyberterrorists.

In the beginning, the drama wasn’t as plugged into the social-media matrix as it is today. King laughs when recounting how Warner Bros. issued a Twitter blackout on the Vancouver set of the PLL pilot. ”It was like, ‘No tweeting, please,”’ remembers King, who now has nearly 150,000 of her own followers. ”We all got reprimanded, so we stopped.” By the time the pilot aired, the studio had lifted the on-set Twitter ban after realizing PLL was primed for social-media dominance for three reasons: its digital-focused premise (basically, all of the action hinges on texts sent and received), loads of OMG-worthy cliff-hangers, and a target demo of 14- to 34-year-old women who were already busily leading their lives online. ”We kind of changed Warner Brothers’ tweeting policy,” says King. Adds Alloy CEO Les Morgenstein, ”There are tons of secrets, and people love to talk about them.”

And talk they have: From the start, fans have freely tweeted the creators and stars with ”Please don’t do this to the books; please don’t do that” story-line directives, says King, adding, ”Twitter is a giant focus group that naturally evolves.” Today, viewers freeze-frame images of mythology-based items on the show — license plates, books, diary pages — and post them online for examination. ”There’s no filler in the props,” says King, citing Alison’s recently discovered diary, which fueled many story lines during the current season. The diary pages were typically only seen from afar, but everything on them was real, in case they hit the Web. ”We know our fans will scrutinize every word.”

The cast is grateful for (and sometimes a little stumped by) fans’ digital devotion; Hale, for one, marvels at the things that viewers can get trending on Twitter. ”It won’t even have anything to do with Pretty Little Liars,” she says. ”It’ll be like #AriaHasGotACoolCoatOn.” But not all of the PLL stars are as enamored with the idea of online oversharing. ”I didn’t really see what was necessary about it,” says Bellisario. ”What got me involved was the fact that there were so many people posing as me — that forced me to have an active voice on Twitter.”

Impostors aren’t the only pitfalls of a social-media-heavy life, of course. Mitchell recalls an afternoon when she inadvertently broadcast Hale’s cell-phone number in a video she posted online. ”She had to change her number!” Mitchell laments. ”I’ll take the blame. You always have to be careful.” Hale laughs off the incident but adds, ”You can’t cross that line of releasing too much info.” So if you’re playing along at home, kids, just remember: Releasing video of yourself getting a shot in the posterior, good. Releasing your actual phone number, bad.

Pretty Little Liars‘ success in the social-media arena has not gone unnoticed by competing networks and shows, many of which are launching campaigns to lure more fans and followers. ABC’s buzzy drama Scandal uses a variety of hashtags, like #AskScandal — and a spirited, dedicated cast led by star Kerry Washington who tweet every episode — to engage the fans in a constant conversation. (It doesn’t hurt that showrunner Shonda Rhimes is skilled at doling out teases and questions to her nearly 292,000 Twitter followers.) The CW’s The Vampire Diaries recruited stars Nina Dobrev, Ian Somerhalder, and Paul Wesley to live-tweet the Jan. 24 episode, which was subsequently named one of the most social shows of the evening by SocialGuide. (”Most social,” by the way, is fast becoming a new, press-release-worthy benchmark in the TV industry.) SocialGuide — which measures real-time Twitter mentions for shows and is co-owned by Nielsen — also named Pretty Little Liars the fifth-most-social series of 2012, with 8.7 million tweets in the calendar year. It’s an impressive figure, especially given that the series it trailed — MTV’s Jersey Shore, NBC’s The Voice, and Fox’s Family Guy and The X Factor — often have had double, and in some cases triple, PLL‘s weekly viewership.

Still, what does being a ”social” hit really mean? And where’s the tangible payoff? As of right now, no one knows. The only thing people know for sure about shows that are socially successful is that they’re being talked about. ”No one’s at the point where you can say trending topics on Twitter or number of Twitter followers generates directly into ratings,” explains ABC Family’s Mullin. ”We feel like it does anecdotally. We’re breaking through the clutter of television and standing out. But there just isn’t a tool that can bridge that gap yet.”

Twitter and Nielsen (with an assist from SocialGuide’s data) will attempt to crack the social-buzz-to-ratings reality code this fall by debuting the Nielsen Twitter TV Rating, which is being dubbed an ”industry-standard metric” as well as a ”complement” to the traditional TV rating that has gauged viewership for years. A spokesperson for Twitter promises the metric will clarify how social media are affecting TV viewing: ”Millions of people are talking about shows. We want to know: Does that cause them to tune in? We suspect it does. You can suspect something anecdotally, but you really want to see some kind of measurement. Does this keep them tuning in longer?”

Perhaps it can once again turn scripted shows into appointment television. Social-media usage always spikes during live events like the Oscars and the Super Bowl, because they create a must-watch community atmosphere. Now networks and showrunners hope to replicate that effect by making their real-time airings as relevant as they were before the advent of the DVR. ”It feels like because of social media, [”fans”] want to watch Pretty Little Liars live,” says King. ”The watercooler talk becomes instant.” Adds Mullin: ”We like to play into what we call FOMO, or fear of missing out. If you’re not on Twitter and you’re not tweeting while the show is on, then you’re missing this collective conversation, which our viewers really love to be a part of.”

For how much longer, though? Should the show, which will end its third season on March 19, keep telling stories at the same pace, the end of season 5 would see the girls graduate from high school. (PLL has been renewed through a 24-episode fourth season, which will keep it on the air through at least next March.) Commencement seems like a perfect point to wrap things up, right? King is toying with the five-seasons-and-out idea, but for now she remains coy: ”Knowing the endgame allows us to have something to work toward.” Whenever the Liars leave, Mitchell envisions a happy, ”A”-free ending for them: ”I think that the girls are going to come out on top.” It’s unclear whether Mitchell is talking about the actors or the characters as she wistfully adds, ”Then they can just do a year off and vacation far, far away, with no technology at their side.”

The PLL Cheat Sheet
The Premise

The story follows four high school friends as they fend off a group of cyberstalkers who sign their threats as ”A.” Though the girls thought the ”A” messages were coming from their dead pal Alison (Sasha Pieterse), in season 1 her remains were found, and later they learned Alison had been stalked by ”A” in the past. Now figuring out the identity of ”Red Coat” — the captain of the ”A” team? — is the Little Liars’ biggest concern.

The Players

Aria (Lucy Hale), the foursome’s de facto leader who’s dating her former high school teacher; Hanna (Ashley Benson), the once-chubby teen queen who’s always good for a sassy line; Emily (Shay Mitchell), the good-girl swimmer who has a devoted girlfriend in Paige (Lindsey Shaw); and Spencer (Troian Bellisario), a type-A bookworm. The only known members of the ”A” team are Hanna’s friend Mona (Janel Parrish) and Spencer’s ex-boyfriend Toby (Keegan Allen).

Why We Can’t Stop Watching

Because it’s Desperate Housewives crossed with Gossip Girl — and there’s a little Rebecca thrown in for good measure. The mysteries are gothic, the fashion is outrageous, and PLL‘s cliff-hangers make Revenge look like C-SPAN.

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