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'Pretty Little Liars' owes social media

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LOS ANGELES -- The curt antagonist on Pretty Little Liars -- known only as "A'' -- terrorizes victims by way of text messages and the Internet. ABC Family is using the same weapons to lure its audience.

The network is banking on Twitter's 140 characters and Facebook's "like"-ability in an effort to generate buzz and strengthen the fan base of the freshman series. And it doesn't end with social networking. Whether it's iPhone apps or text alerts, TV networks are finding that they have to keep up with an ever-changing social media landscape to keep young viewers interested.

It seems to be working for Pretty Little Liars. The series nabbed 4.2 million total viewers for its mid-season premiere last month. Not gargantuan numbers, but impressive enough for the young cable network.

"We know how influential the dialogue on social networks can be," said Danielle Mullin, vice president of marketing at ABC Family. "That was really key to our strategy. We really tried to use social media as a way for fans to become advocates for us and help get the word out about the premiere."

It also helps that the program, based on the popular young adult novels by Sara Shepard, has a built-in audience ready to help spread the word. Leading up to the series' launch, the network tapped Shepard to participate in an online press call, on which she answered questions submitted on the ABC Family Pretty Little Liars Facebook page. To capitalize on the show's premiere and the release of the final book in the series, the network posted Shepard's tweets containing passages from the first chapter on the Pretty Little Liars Facebook Fan page.

"We love Twitter; we love Facebook," said series creator Marlene King, who also has taken part in the tactic by participating in a Twitter-based Q and A with fans. "You're talking to people in Brazil, in China. Gosh, if I were 14 years old and I could've tweeted the creator of a TV show while sitting in my bedroom -- and they're tweeting me back -- I'd be delighted."

On the night of its series premiere last June, Pretty Little Liars was a "Breakout!" search term on the Yahoo Buzz index; on Google Trends, which tracks what's popular on the Web, the Pretty Little Liars' "hotness factor" went from "Spicy" to "On fire" to "Volcanic." They may not be exactly comparable to stellar Nielsen figures, but a program's social media footprint is just as imperative, according to Dan Neely, chief executive of Networked Insights, a data mining and analytics company.

"It allows for instant feedback in a way that arbitrary ratings can't," he said. "People are sharing instantly what they don't like about a particular scene, or they're asking questions like, 'Where can I go buy the thing she's wearing?' ... and they don't have to send a letter to do it."

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