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The Genius of Gossip Girl


Ed Westwick and Penn Badgley doing a scene.   

Reason No. 3 Because ‘Gossip Girl’ is changing the very model of a successful TV show.

Before it even aired, Gossip Girl was armed with two great advantages. One was the fan base of Josh Schwartz, which was giddily waiting to see how he’d follow up on The O.C. The other was the legion of young girls who had read the tawdry but addictive Gossip Girl book series by Nightingale-Bamford graduate Cecily von Ziegesar. And yet, the numbers were bad. Really bad. New episodes pulled in an average of 2.5 million viewers, just over half of what The O.C. had the season it was canceled. Teenagers just weren’t gathering around the family tube to catch the show during its 9 p.m. slot. But that didn’t mean they weren’t watching.

New episodes routinely arrived at the No. 1 most-downloaded spot on iTunes, and then there were the hundreds of thousands who were downloading free week-old episodes on the CW’s site. Even executives at Nielsen threw up their hands and admitted that Gossip Girl appeared to be speaking to an audience so young and tech-savvy they hadn’t really figured it out just yet.

This isn’t the first show to find Internet success—Lost and The Office are big download hits, too. But this is the first show that seems to have succeeded primarily on the Internet. There’s something about the combination of the show’s premise, the viewers’ age, and the available technology that has given Gossip Girl a life of its own online. Not only do fans watch the show on their computers, but they post sightings of the actors on gossip blogs and exchange rumors (about both the show and its stars) on fan sites. You can even play Gossip Girl’s Upper East Side on Second Life. It’s not appointment television; it’s a 24-hour conversation. We are all Gossip Girl! And the whole experience can happen sans television.

Or at least that’s the way it used to be. As with most bumblings into new terrain, Gossip Girl is causing some befuddlement at the network. Last week, the CW announced that it was pulling Web-streaming for the season’s final five episodes. "For these next five weeks, the epicenter of the Gossip Girl universe will be on the CW’s broadcast-television airwaves," said president of entertainment Dawn Ostroff, as if she were annoyed that the epicenter had previously been located in a place where advertisers haven’t yet learned how to reach into the pockets of teenage girls. Up to this point, the strategy for solving the advertising conundrum had been mostly product placement. All the characters talk on Verizon cell phones, and Victoria’s Secret sponsored practically an entire episode, introducing 13-year-olds everywhere to slutty sleepwear. It seemed to be working: "This is my Gossip Girl outfit," said a twentysomething fan we bumped into on set, smoothing the front of her plaid belted trench. "It was on the show." (And can be yours for $159 at Nine West stores nationwide.) But placement is just no revenue match for broadcast ads.

As the CW struggles to figure out how to make money off Gossip Girl, it’s overlooking what an amazing thing it has on its hands, which is a show that may foretell a future of multiplatform entertainment whose success is determined not by traditional ratings but by what Schwartz and co–executive producer Stephanie Savage call "cultural permeation." It’s not a new goal—as Us Weekly editor Janice Min puts it, "The best thing that could happen to a show is for someone to be able to say ‘Jen and Courteney’ and you know they are talking about the stars of Friends"—but it is an entirely new way of getting there.

Reason No. 4 Because of Blake and Leighton.

Gossip Girl’s "Jen and Courteney" would be Blake Lively and Leighton Meester. Theirs is a dynamic that dates back to the dawn of entertainment: the blonde bombshell versus the sassy brunette. Betty and Veronica. Ginger and Mary Ann. Brenda and Kelly.

There are fans of Gossip Girl who prefer Blake’s ethereal Serena, who is all light and earnestness and a little bit foolish. Then there are the viewers who favor Leighton’s Blair, the dark princess, fiercely loyal and cruel to the point of farce, a Heather Chandler for the OMFG generation.

They’re pretty diametrically opposed in real life, too. Just not in the same way.

Blake doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t go out much. Though she says she’s friendly with her castmates, she tends to prefer dinners out with her stylists over running around to the latest hot spots with Leighton, Jessica, Ed, and Chace. She grew up in a show-business family—her father, Ernie Lively, is one of those familiar actors who play cops on television; her brother Jason was Rusty in National Lampoon’s European Vacation—and she presents the pretty, friendly, but not terribly interesting façade of someone who knows her way around an interview. She is so circumspect that she won’t say what her favorite restaurants are or even what neighborhood she lives in.

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