Cover Story

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.

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.

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