MTV's Next Big Idea? Reviving TRL for the Smartphone Generation
TRL, the MTV show formerly known as Total Request Live, went off the air in 2008. On November 16 of that year, to be exact; Beyoncé performed its swan song. In the nine years since, YouTube became the primary vehicle by which people watched music videos, the activity for which people tuned in to the show in the first place. Beyoncé moved on to releasing visual albums instead of straight-up videos. MTV backed away from videos altogether in order to fully embrace reality and scripted programming. And the US elected reality star Donald Trump as president.
It’s been almost a decade since anyone watched TRL and since then everything about its primary foci—music videos, celebrity culture, TV consumption—has changed. So when the network announced in July that it was bringing back its afternoon music-video countdown show, the prevailing question was: “Why?”
Because MTV needs its mojo back, that's why.
After a half-decade of falling ratings, the network finally saw a bit of an uptick this summer, but its most recent VMAs had one of its smallest audiences in years. Meanwhile, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, SoundCloud, and—of course—YouTube became the primary vehicle by which MTV’s target demo of young adults consumed entertainment. After Chris McCarthy took over as president of the network late last year, he identified TRL as a potential vehicle to turn around MTV’s ratings. The show, and its semi-iconic Times Square set, he told the New York Times, was a "centerpiece" of MTV’s culture.
What MTV's culture is, though, has been in flux for a while. The network has implemented a lot of changes in recent years to keep those young people around and bring in new audiences. In 2013 it shifted focus because it discovered millennials didn't rebel against their parents as much. After the success of Teen Wolf, it started lining up fantasy shows like The Shannara Chronicles. The same indecision was visible online as well: In 2015, under then-president Sean Atkins, it reinvigorated MTV News and brought on a slate of high-profile writers, many from ESPN's Grantland, hoping to re-focus on music. But barely two years later, MTV News shifted away from long-form journalism to video content, and McCarthy promised to bring the focus back to "amplifying young people's voices." (Shannara went to the Spike network, BTW.) The return of TRL is part of that amplification.
Reviving a long-dead show to boost ratings is an ambitious ask. No one knows this better than Albert Lewitinn, MTV’s head of live programming. When he was tasked with bringing TRL back just a few months ago, his response was enthusiastic, but cautious. "I was like, '…awesome?'" he says now with a grin. "It’s a great challenge." So he got to work reviving the original set, which hadn’t seen live programming in years—for a while, it was partially taken over by a two-story Aéropostale store—and re-envisioning a TRL that now incorporates Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter as part of its programming.
"TRL was social media before there was social media,” Lewitinn says, seated in the show’s still-under-construction set overlooking 7th Avenue in New York's Times Square. "You came home from school and turned on the TV and were like 'Oh my god, did you see that?' Then you called someone on the phone to say 'Are you watching?' So the idea here is to do the same thing [on social media]. You’ll come to be there for the moment.”
When TRL went off the air in 2008, Carson Daly, the show’s most famous host, had ideas why. "When I left, it was right on the heels of Napster," he told TV Guide. "MySpace was sold. Social networking took off. Technology went crazy. The whole tectonic shift of mass media. There were a lot of reasons why TRL became kind of a different show after [that]." Indeed. After the ascent of Napster in 1999, everything about the record industry changed; the days of Britney Spears selling millions of records while riding high on TRL’s countdown were over.
So with a bit of can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em gusto, MTV has brought on an entire crew of internet celebrities to MC the new TRL. There’s host D.C. Young Fly from Wild 'N Out, YouTube star Eva Gutowski (MyLifeAsEva), Instagram fave Gigi Gorgeous, and even Vine-stars-turned-YouTubers the Dolan twins, who according to Grayson Dolan weren’t allowed by their parents to watch TRL when it went off the air because they were so young (like 8 years old young)—all of them bringing their millions of followers with them.
"I think a lot of people are wondering how this format will work in this day and age when everything is online," says Tamara Dhia, the former Complex News presenter who now serves as one of TRL’s hosts. “That’s why MTV is really smart about this—they’re integrating digital and linear content. It’s not going to be just something you consume on TV.”
And considering those platforms are where both TRL’s audience and future guests hang out all day, that’s a smart bet. Now that social media buzz and song streams will get an artist on the Hot 100 faster than a music video on MTV, the network has to cater to that. (It's only slightly ironic that the current chart champion, Cardi B, came to fame through social media and a turn on VH1's Love & Hip Hop New York, rather than the kind of music programming that used to be MTV's staple.) Lewitinn is tight-lipped about what the actual format will be for the show—it's still unclear whether they'll actually be counting down videos—but promises it will be ever-evolving and always be integrated with the internet through clips immediately posted on YouTube, moments shared on Twitter and Instagram, and pre- and post-shows on Facebook Live. They’re also asking their internet-savvy new hosts for input. “Honestly, I’ve been surprised with how inclusive they’ve been with our ideas,” Dhia says.
But will it work? Ummmdunno. Speaking with the Times, MoffettNathanson Research Michael Nathanson said “there’s heavy skepticism of a multiyear recovery” for MTV. But record companies are excited to bring their artists back. This week the new TRL is launching with a slate of internet-beloved guests ranging from Lil Yachty to Demi Lovato to Ed Sheeran. Buzz will likely be high for the first couple of weeks for no other reason than people will be curious whether MTV can pull this off, but everything after that remains a mystery. By now young people watch a lot more video on non-TV screens, and the next big thing can come and go in the time it takes it to fall off Twitter's Trending Topics list. Will TRL be able to keep up? Hard to tell, but at least the network has the lingo down.
“We want that ‘fear of missing out’ moment,” Lewitinn says. “We want to make those moments.”
Hear that, fellow kids? #FOMO.
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