Teenage kicks: How Gossip Girl changed TV

A teenage drama set in New York's exclusive Upper East Side has become the hottest thing in showbusiness – and is changing the way the world watches television. As Britain falls under its glamorous spell, Stephen Foley explains how a soap about overprivileged rich kids turned into the talk of the town
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

They've been filming Gossip Girl across from the offices of The Independent's New York bureau, and we're excited. The Palace hotel on Manhattan's Madison Avenue is where Serena van der Woodsen, the show's Venus-in-skinny-jeans, is living with her mother while their uptown apartment is being given a high-class makeover. The hotel, of course, is owned by the Bass family, whose overprivileged teenage son Chuck has a whole suite to himself.

Now, I must confess that we've not caught a glimpse of either of them so far. But we're on the blogs waiting for the latest sightings, and might even be willing to travel – all in the interests of journalistic research, of course – to the Upper East Side, where most of the action is set. Alternatively, we'd pop into the Palace for a light lunch and slip upstairs for a bit of corridor stalking. Or at least, we might if Gossip Girl were real life, the Van der Woodsens and the Basses weren't made-up characters, and the Palace wasn't really owned by someone else entirely.

It's difficult to unpick reality from fiction when discussing Gossip Girl, a television show that has got New York's gossips in even more of a lather than Sex and the City did in its heyday.

For those who haven't cottoned on yet, the show – like the wildly successful teen book series on which it is based – follows a gaggle of exclusive private-school kids from the ultra-monied Upper East Side as they fall in and out of love, as they plot, scheme and bitch, and as they work their way through the hottest of the city's bars, music venues and designer labels. It is New York as a sort of candy store, for them and for the viewer.

In the US, Gossip Girl is currently the hottest thing on television, watched by the sexiest demographic and feted by an industry which believes that – in the ways it has been shot, created and marketed – it showcases the future of television. In the UK, it is fast becoming a cult; indeed, ITV2 yesterday screened six straight hours of the show, allowing viewers to catch up with every episode screened so far.

For those among us who are now addicted to Gossip Girl, it's a time-consuming pursuit. Because it is not just a matter of tuning in for an hour a week; it's also a matter of diving head-first into a whole world, played out on the internet, where the characters and the people behind them are hard to separate, and where updates come not just in one-hour chunks every week, but in excited blog posts and "sightings" of the characters and the actors flashed to us 24/7.

In other words, the TV show presents a typical teenage world in this age of social networking, web-enabled camera phones and absolutely no privacy whatsoever. Josh Schwartz – the show's producer, whose previous hit The OC was just as full of unblemished youngsters and aspirational backdrops, but never quite made it out of cult status – seems to have a genuine megahit this time, and one that will see him hailed as the world's hottest and greatest TV boss; the man most in tune with the zeitgeist.

For now, though, Schwartz's hit is also scaring the hell out of television executives. To them, Gossip Girl is a glimpse of tomorrow's world. And – for the men in suits who have for years controlled the world's greatest mass-market communication tool – it looks a bit like anarchy.

The show's narrative is told through the eyes of the eponymous, always anonymous "Gossip Girl" – a blogger in the midst of its well-heeled characters, who relays the what-they're-wearing, who-they've-been-kissing details about their lives with an eyebrow arched as high as ours.

In the show, Gossip Girl is silkily voiced by Kristen Bell, star of Veronica Mars, but she exists in various forms on the net, too, on promotional sites run by The CW, a young-and-hip new TV channel that first commissioned the series in the US, and by other major broadcasters who have since picked up the show.

But these are just the tip of the iceberg, as blog begets blog begets blog, and numerous fan-sites spring up. There are places to dissect the latest bitchy outpourings from Blair Waldorf, Serena's friend and rival. There are places for discussing the real lives of the programme's stars – for OMG-ing about how Chace Crawford, who plays son-of-a-banker Nate Archibald, has dumped American Idol winner Carrie Underwood by text message and been seen about town with Rumer Willis, spawn of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore.

There are places to discover that Lydia Hearst, a scion of a real-life rich family, is shooting a future episode of the show. Places to gossip about whether Blake Lively and Leighton Meester have fallen out over who is the bigger star, mirroring the rivalry between Serena and Blair over who is queen bee at school. There are places to score each new episode for how "real" or "fake" it is compared to the real lives of New York's most privileged teenagers.

Even the stars have blogs. Michelle Trachtenberg, the former Buffy the Vampire Slayer star who turns up as an evil blast from Serena's past, was burbling on on the Cosmopolitan website recently about how fabulous it was to be picking out the Jimmy Choo booties, the Ya-Ya jacket and the Tom Ford shades to be worn by her character – and about her own line of jewellery, available nationwide soon, natch.

And there are places, too, to report where the actors are filming, dining and partying, since they are fast becoming some of the hottest young properties in the business. They are regular fixtures in the newspaper gossip columns and on celebrity websites such as Gawker, which plots sightings on a New York City map. A publicist for the show recently tried placing an item in the New York Post's must-read diary column, Page Six, about Leighton Meester and a "hot male companion" dining together at a fashionable restaurant, and Page Six snapped it up.

Publicising a TV show with a little well-placed gossip about its stars is hardly new, of course. Page Six hacks are pretty long-suffering when it comes to tip-offs from desperate public relations execs. The Meester-Lively rumours echo the "Desperate Housewives stars hate each other" chatter that was heard when that soap first started sudding. The difference with Gossip Girl is that this time, with this audience, and in this era of constant communication, the gossip is feeding on itself.

Yet, for all the excitement, magazines are only belatedly starting to put the stars on their covers, eight months after the programme first aired in the US. It has been a slow-burning hit. Why so slow?

The answer lies in another problem that sets fact against fiction. The viewing figures for this show are not real. For months, the real viewing figures have been understating the impact of Gossip Girl among teenagers. And the reason for that is that teenagers are not watching it on TV. They are watching it on websites.

The CW streamed the early episodes of the show on its website – before the writers' strike – for watching whenever people wanted. Gossip Girl addicts are also paying to download it to watch on their iPods and mobile phones at their convenience. Whisper this, but they are also downloading it using file-sharing software, neither paying for it nor having to sit through commercials, nor having to sign up to be spammed by advertisers.

Take a quick look at a file-sharing website and it is quickly clear that Gossip Girl is among the most popular shows being swapped by users, often ranking No 1. On iTunes, Gossip Girl accounts for 15 of the top 100 TV show purchases in its latest US chart, and all six of the episodes available in the UK store are ranked in the top 30 there.

The CW was pretty confident that it had found a flagship show that would establish its new network, founded in 2006 and designed to appeal to advertisers, who positively salivate over reaching the teenage and twentysomething demographic. But The CW's viewing figures have actually been worse on average this year than in the channel's debut year. Gossip Girl managed a measly 3.5 million viewers when it premiered, and the following week there were a million fewer.

It has been the same story in the UK, where Gossip Girl debuted on ITV2 on 28 March. That first show averaged fewer than 300,000 viewers, some 30 per cent below the level the channel might expect for its time slot. Because the channel hopes that it still has a slow-burn success on its hands, yesterday it ran one of those "new viewers start here" sessions that digital channels can use to reignite interest, sweeping away its bank holiday schedule to run the first six episodes back to back.

TV bosses hope against hope that making shows available on the web will build new income for them, whether it be from ads alongside video streaming or actual money in the bank from viewers who buy it on iTunes. The risk is that the internet will do to television what it has done to the music industry – that is, decimate it.

For now, the industry is facing both ways – and is nervous as hell. The CW prompted an outcry from fans by saying it would stop streaming new episodes on its website, in an attempt to force them to make an appointment to view with the channel itself.

As for how ITV2 will fare, who knows? There are already plenty of British Gossip Girl addicts who can't wait for the show to be dribbled out weekly on TV and iTunes, and who watch the US episodes on the web, or file-share the shows as they are ripped off US television and swapped using BitTorrent.

"The show is a new beast," Josh Schwartz said in a magazine interview. "It shows that the old system of measuring audiences isn't relevant when it comes to a show like this, which is for this kind of audience. It's affecting Gossip Girl radically right now, but in the next two years it's going to have a radical effect on all of television. It's incumbent on all the networks to figure out how to measure that. Otherwise, it's just going to look like they're losing viewers when, actually, they're not."

The change in viewing habits is starting to be mirrored across the industry, in the diverse range of programmes aimed at commercially attractive young audiences. "We can't stick our heads in the sand," said Bruce Rosenblum, the head of the Warner Brothers Television Group, last week. "My 20-year-old daughter and her friends are watching One Tree Hill and Pushing Daisies, but not on television. They're watching on laptops and cellphones. Here's the interesting part – to them, that is television."

Rosenblum was speaking at the launch of a whole new web venture, called the TheWB.com. The WB was the old channel that was subsumed into The CW two years ago, and the resurrected brand on the net will show a mix of old shows (including The OC and Friends) and new commissions – including, they hope, a music show being developed by Gossip Girl's Schwartz. The shows on TheWB.com will, of course, be available at any time of the day or night, whenever viewers choose to click on them. Yes, it's anarchy out there.

Rosenblum called it an "evolution", but he might have put an "r" in front of that. TV executives have been resisting putting genuinely new content on the web, filling up new sites and services such as Hulu and Joost with classic programmes and bitty, low-budget niche nonsense. But the dawn of full-length TV on the web is cracking.

Bobby Tulsiani, who researches digital media for Jupiter Research in New York, says that broadcasters have to get out of old habits if they are to reach the Gossip Girl generation. "Experiences that limit content to particular time windows or number of episodes will continue to frustrate mainstream consumers," he says. A majority of people would still rather watch their favourite shows on a TV set, but it's a slim majority, and young people are already switching. About 15 per cent of all internet users are happy to watch full-length TV shows on the net, Jupiter says. A vastly bigger percentage than that already watch shorter clips, since YouTube – initially just a ghastly 24-hour version of You've Been Framed – grew up and went mainstream.

"While consumption of full-length TV shows has been limited in past year, the genre may finally be ready for 'internet prime-time'," Tulsiani said.

And as Gossip Girl heralds – and as the excitable teenage fans outside The Independent's offices and at all the other filming locations will attest – soon, all the time will be prime time.

Changing channels: other shows that are transforming TV

Torchwood

Always destined to play second fiddle to its parent programme (Doctor Who), this sci-fi thriller captured the viewing zeitgeist of 2008 with its second series, which scored huge ratings on the BBC's internet watchback service, iPlayer. As the fourth most-watched show, behind The Apprentice, Ashes to Ashes and Louis Theroux, Torchwood's massive success has contributed to complaints from internet providers, who fear that iPlayer may crash broadband connections across the country. The programme has proved a huge career boost for its star, John Barrowman (right), and now even has its own spin-off, Torchwood Declassified, and a string of Torchwood-themed novels.

KateModern & Sofia's Diary

Teenagers change their viewing habits as often as they do best friends, and broadcasters can no longer expect them to sit in front of a television for a standard 30-minute show in a regular weekly slot. KateModern and Sofia's Diary are both internet dramas conceived by the networking site Bebo, which posts bite-sized "webisodes" several times a week for its online audience. Exploiting the interactive power of the internet, the shows invite viewers to help direct the plot and choose which characters get the most airtime. Sofia's Diary (above) has made soap history by being the first show to jump from the internet to television – Five has just snapped it up for its Freeview channel Five Life – although it's unclear who will watch a three-minute show on TV that they could watch online, anytime.

Moving Wallpaper & Echo Beach

ITV has been searching for something to shake up its schedule for several years, and last autumn it pitched its hopes on the reflexive ensemble piece Echo Beach/Moving Wallpaper. Echo Beach is a standard format soap set in Cornwall starring Jason Donovan and Martine McCutcheon (below); Moving Wallpaper is a faux fly-on-the-wall documentary-cum-comedy that follows the fortunes of the soap's production crew and their megalomaniacal producer. Despite heavy promotion and strong initial audiences of more than five million apiece, the March finale won a mere two million viewers.

The Hills

It's no wonder that the line between reality TV fame and actual celebrity is so imperceptible, when the most popular shows of the day are creations like The Hills, a conflation of reality and drama. The Hills (above) stars a pack of genuine Californian rich kids (and the similarities to the fictional show The OC are uncanny), whose lives are edited into a linear narrative, making the show appear like a scripted drama. Some on the blogosphere have gone further and accused The Hills of passing off entirely fictional characters as real-life rich brats. When the show is broadcast on Channel 4's T4, as it has been since January, it is accompanied by a disclaimer stating that some scenes have been created for "entertainment purposes".

By Sophie Morris

And previous teen sensations

Dawson's Creek - 1998-2003

The show that made a star (and a Scientology wife) of Katie Holmes was based on the upbringing of its writer Kevin Williamson, whose script for the hit teen slasher film Scream had impressed Paul Stupin, a Hollywood "suit" behind the Creek as well as Beverly Hills, 90210.

Starring a suspiciously bestubbled James Van Der Beek as the eponymous teenage boy (the actor was 20 when filming started), the Creek was a hit as soon as it premiered, and ran for 128 episodes. The show was perhaps most memorable for the verbose dialogue between its precocious teen characters. It became must-see TV for a generation – and their parents – and also launched the careers of Holmes, who played goodie two-shoes heartbreaker Joey Potter, and the Brokeback Mountain star Michelle Williams.

The OC - 2003-2007

Created by Gossip Girl developer Josh Schwartz, the youngest of the new breed of inexperienced Hollywood writers credited with bringing a welcome freshness to TV scriptwriting (think JJ Abrams of Lost fame), The OC was originally pitched to Fox as "the next 90210". For a time, the show pulled in almost 10 million viewers in the US and was a global hit thanks to its preternaturally beautiful stars and sun-kissed setting – the titular Orange County, California. But, by season four, the tale of Ryan Atwood, a gentle young hoodlum thrust into moneyed world of Orange County's high rollers, had run out of steam and haemorrhaged viewers. Some critics blamed the killing off of Marissa Cooper, played by English-born actress Mischa Barton, who was the biggest draw for The OC's sizeable male audience.

Beverly Hills, 90210 - 1990-2000

By the time it came off air, Beverly Hills, 90210 had been credited with virtually creating a TV genre: modern teen television. It also set the standard for aspirational drama that dares to deal with "real" issues (date rape, suicide and Aids all cropped up in the show's plots). Created by the Darren Star, the man behind Sex and the City, the show was produced by the late Aaron Spelling, who was behind hits including Starsky & Hutch, Dynasty and Charlie's Angels. 90210, as it became known, followed the lives of a group of privileged teenagers coming of age in the upscale LA County zip code and made household names of its stars Jason Priestley and Shannen Doherty. Neither has enjoyed much success since, however. Indeed, only their co-star Tori Spelling (Aaron's daughter) is expected to appear in the 90210 spin-off due to premiere later this year.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer - 1997-2003

Where would FHM magazine be without Sarah Michelle Gellar? The buff Buffy star has been a permanent fixture on the pages of the men's title since she shot to fame in the teen fantasy "dramedy", and even now still commands a top-40 position in its "100 Sexiest" list. All this has occurred despite the fact that Gellar has struggled to win roles in decent films since her vampire-slaying days (unless you count Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed). In its heyday, Buffy developed an unexpected cult following among academic men in corduroy trousers, many of whom have written books examining the sociological and philosophical themes of the show. The series, which ran to 144 episodes, follows Buffy, who is chosen by fate to battle against vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness.

By Simon Usborne

Comments