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How ‘Gossip Girl’ Shaped the CW

Ten years after its first episode, the beloved teen soap opera still influences the way we watch TV

‘Gossip Girl’ characters The CW/Ringer illustration

The paradox of Gossip Girl’s legacy can be found in its premise. The CW teen drama, which premiered 10 years ago this week, was in many ways a show about the internet and the panopticon it was rapidly becoming; the show took its name from an anonymous blog that chronicled “the scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite” with alarming speed and omniscience. Gossip Girl, the fictitious publication, was a convenient framing device that eventually, and inadvisably, became a key plot point of Gossip Girl the show. (Of the many mistakes Gossip Girl made in its later seasons, maybe the most fatal was the show’s belief that viewers were clamoring for its title character’s true identity; we were perfectly content with her as a bitchy, if suspiciously all-knowing, narrator.) It was also a harbinger of how smartphones and their cameras would soon turn everyone’s lives into a matter of public interest, not just celebrities’.

Yet a decade later, the setup already seems quaint. There wouldn’t be much need for a tell-all virtual rag in 2017, because today’s teenagers do so much of the telling themselves on social media. Queen bee Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester) would have a pre-scripted hashtag for her every social event; greaseball playboy Chuck Bass (Ed Westwick) would turn his IRL creeping virtual and slide into the DMs of any woman with a pulse. And even if Gossip Girl did manage to establish an audience, her readers wouldn’t send in their tips on a dinky LG Chocolate, ubiquitous in early episodes thanks to a lucrative product-placement deal with Verizon. The real Gossip Girl would exist as a Shade Room–lite Instagram page, or it wouldn’t exist at all.

That’s Gossip Girl for you: the first and the last of its kind. On the occasion of the series’ 10th anniversary, it’s hard to think of a show that feels at once so dated and so ahead of its time. Thanks to a second life on Netflix and an impending spiritual sibling—cocreators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage will return to the CW’s prime-time lineup this fall with a Dynasty reboot—Gossip Girl has remained relevant long after its finale and even longer after it jumped the shark. It’s emblematic of a critical time at the start of its network, practically defining the CW during its all-important infancy, and the end of ubiquitous, broadcast-based TV. That’s the downside to starting so many trends: Your successors will inevitably date you, even when they’re just following in your footsteps.

Though Gossip Girl’s influence would soon spread to the rest of TV, its most dramatic impact was on its own network. Gossip Girl was not the first series to premiere on the newly minted CW network; the swiftly forgotten Hidden Palms preceded it by a full three and a half months. It was, however, the first native-born hit after parent companies CBS and Warner Bros. merged two separately struggling components: UPN and the WB. Consequently, Gossip Girl’s importance was always outsize. The CW’s breakout show was never merely succeeding on its own terms; it was setting the tone for an entire institution.

Rather than starting from scratch, the CW’s identity borrowed heavily from its parent companies. Its first entertainment president, Dawn Ostroff, served the same role at UPN, and the WB’s John Maatta served as COO, ensuring representation from both sides of the partnership; much of the CW’s debut lineup consisted of well-liked WB and UPN series, including Gilmore Girls, Everybody Hates Chris, Supernatural, Girlfriends, 7th Heaven, Veronica Mars, and One Tree Hill. That the offspring of two young-skewing networks would continue to target teens, in other words, was neither a shock nor a significant pivot for either of the merging creative teams.

Nonetheless, Gossip Girl established the CW’s ethos in a way no superficial rebranding could. Viewers don’t care about arcane, behind-the-scenes business matters like affiliation renewals; they care about consistency and the expectation it creates of what can be found where on a particular night of the week. And Gossip Girl sent a crystal-clear message to the teen girls of America that what could be found on the CW was soapy, purely entertaining hours that starred beautiful people theoretically in our age group but obviously five to 10 years older—the kind of shows that had always been marketed to young women, but updated with to-the-microsecond name drops.

Sure enough, Gossip Girl would soon become the flagship around which an entire prime-time lineup would be built. There were the reboots that aimed to fuse recognizably mid-aughts youth culture with the IP cachet of their parents’ favorite series: 90210, which ran for a respectable five seasons, and Melrose Place, which flamed out after just one. There were shows, like Hart of Dixie and The Beautiful Life: TBL, that took stars of Schwartz and Savage’s breakout hit, The O.C.—Rachel Bilson and Mischa Barton, respectively—and transplanted them to the creators’ new home. And there was The Vampire Diaries, a supernatural drama that presaged the more genre direction the CW has taken in recent years—with the help of Gossip Girl’s “hot people hooking up in various permutations” template. The Vampire Diaries would bridge the CW’s two epochs literally as well as conceptually, stretching for eight seasons and bolstering the network’s bottom line through a transitional period before drawing to a closer earlier this year.

Young women may have been a relatively narrow demographic for a network that was still technically broadcast, but the CW’s strategy was to corner the market on their attention—a strategy ABC Family would soon borrow with Pretty Little Liars, another teen novel adaptation centered on an anonymous virtual presence. Viewing habits were another frontier in which Gossip Girl became an accidental innovator, largely because young people have a habit of refusing to consume media the way their parents did, or the way ad buyers would like them to. Gossip Girl’s first season—abbreviated by the writers’ strike—averaged just 2.35 million live viewers an episode, which in 2007 was an objectively poor showing. It was only when the internet came into the picture, in the form of iTunes downloads, recordings, and views on the episodes naively made available for free on the CW’s website a week after they aired, that the show’s popularity became clear to the powers that be. DVR viewing, Hulu, and syndication via streaming service may now be accepted parts of our media diets, but in 2007, the internet as a TV delivery device was still a novel concept.

The internet was where viewers talked about Gossip Girl, too. New York’s Jessica Pressler and Chris Rovzar became the de facto authorities on all things Upper East Side with their patented (not really, but it should have been) Reality Index on the magazine’s Daily Intelligencer blog. Recaps were just becoming a popular form of online watercooler conversation on sites like Television Without Pity and The AV Club, and Gossip Girl catalyzed their rise as an accepted venue for discussion and even criticism. The internet wasn’t just a key element of Gossip Girl’s plot; it was integral to its offscreen trajectory, too.

It is in the nature of television to change, however, and the same forces that briefly made Gossip Girl the show of the moment soon left it behind. This was true of the series itself, whether because it hit the end of a high school show’s natural life span when its characters graduated or because the economy crashing suddenly rendered conspicuous consumption both unfashionable and in poor taste. But the end of Gossip Girl’s era had as much to do with the show’s industry context as its content.

The CW of 2017 is a different animal from the CW of 2007. Ostroff was succeeded as programming president in 2011 by current head Mark Pedowitz, a transition neatly located at the exact halfway point of the CW’s now-decade-long existence. While there was no immediate overhaul of the network, in a 10-year anniversary piece run in Variety, Pedowitz describes 2013 as a light-bulb moment that young women, while still a key component of the network’s audience, were no longer enough to sustain the operation. The CW’s current brand still skews young, but it’s since made a concerted effort to appeal to the male half of the age group. The CW had already branched into superhero territory with Greg Berlanti’s Arrow in 2012. Now, the so-called “Arrowverse” is a major building block of the network’s drama roster, with Legends of Tomorrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and, next year, Black Lightning continuing to expand the mini-empire (and, by carrying out the TV half of Warner Bros.’ DC adaptation effort, achieve corporate synergy). The CW has gone genre in other ways, too: Postapocalyptic The 100 and undead procedural iZombie vastly prefer gore to lifestyle porn. Meanwhile, female-centric comedies survive in the form of Golden Globe winners Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, but they’re more interested in interrogating femininity than perpetuating an aspirational version of it. Gossip Girl’s DNA is still detectable in the form of Archie-meets–Twin Peaks drama Riverdale, Vampire Diaries spinoff The Originals, and the aforementioned Dynasty. But Dynasty now feels more like an experimental throwback than an intriguing new tactic.

In retrospect, Gossip Girl was arguably the last great example of a now-outdated kind of teen show, closer to Dawson’s Creek or its peer Skins than the pointed progressiveness of a Faking It or The Bold Type. Teen television persists on networks like MTV and the recently christened Freeform (née ABC Family), but it’s almost inconceivable to imagine either of those networks flaunting its own hedonism as Gossip Girl did; they’re far more likely to brag about their political defiance or broad-ranging representation than their sheer quantity of over-the-top (but still PG-13) sex scenes. The cyclical breakups and betrayals of an insular friend group have given way to attempts at social commentary.

But Gossip Girl doesn’t have to be succeeded by a new generation of pale imitations. It’s still there for us to enjoy, thanks to the CW’s mutually beneficial arrangement with Netflix. You can still revisit the time Serena dramatically revealed she killed someone or revel in the obvious inconsistencies that demonstrate Gossip Girl’s identity was clearly a last-ditch revelation and not a longtime plan (another throwback, to when shows invented plots on the fly instead of getting pitched with a five-season plan in mind). The very institution that helped render Gossip Girl partly obsolete also keeps the show preserved in amber—and ensures that both the show, and the network it shaped, lives on.