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MTV doesn’t know what TRL is supposed to be in 2017

Live programming isn’t a neat trick now that everyone does it

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This Wednesday’s episode of MTV’s TRL reboot, the third so far, was a little rocky. Within the span of three minutes, a host loudly reminded a guest to speak into the microphone, a different guest let an accidental “oh shit” slip (mercifully bleeped out by the seven-second delay), and the hosts ungracefully segued to announce that it was National Taco Day, sponsored by Taco Bell. The studio audience got Taco Bell gift cards, and they cheered like their lives depended on it.

TRL is back, baby, and it is confused.

About a decade has passed since the show originally went off the air, so some changes are to be expected. The host is no longer cool-cousin Carson Daly, but D.C. Young Fly, a 25-year-old from Atlanta who catapulted from a series of Vine roasts of popular comedians to a slot on MTV’s freestyle show Wildin’ Out. One-on-one, he’s got that Homecoming King charisma that makes it seem like he’s personally invested in and impressed by you. As a host, he’s a bit frenzied, and it’s not clear if his scattershot style is the result of nerves, production issues — during the first episode you could hear crosstalk from the crew, according to EW — or if it’s just because MTV has decided to shove as much content as possible into five hours per week, and he needs to talk fast to pull it all off.

At the MTV studios last week, which were technically still a construction zone, D.C. told me that he doesn’t feel any pressure fronting a show with such a hefty pop culture legacy as TRL. “We’re not trying to revamp anything that’s already at a high mark,” he said. “One thing we’re trying to show the world is what a TRL would look like in 2017. What would a TRL be in 2017?”

It’s a good question.

In the beginning, MTV’s biggest problem was distribution. It struggled early on to convince cable companies and advertisers that people actually wanted to watch an entire TV channel dedicated to music videos. The now-classic “I want my MTV” promotional campaign was meant to be an anti-authoritarian rallying cry to push cable companies to start carrying the network. In one ad, Cyndi Lauper, David Bowie, Madonna, Boy George, Pat Benatar, and Billy Idol take turns testing the catchphrase as an animated MTV logo bounces across the screen. “America, demand your MTV,” The Police snarl. The clip is weird and grainy, and compares the launch of MTV to the Apollo 11 Moon landing.

Back then, MTV was an outsider, an infant network that played the music radio stations wouldn’t. It positioned itself as a musician’s paradise, and somehow convinced the biggest artists of the decade to star in a freaking commercial for it.

Would Boy George star in an MTV commercial now?

Total Request Live, which began as a mashup of an interactive show called MTV Live and a countdown series called Total Request, became MTV’s unofficial flagship by the early 2000s — shorthanded as TRL. At the time, it gave fans unprecedented access to superstars and heralded moderately successful musicians into the mainstream. In a 2000 interview with PBS’s Frontline, New York Times critic Ann Powers argued that TRL was a non-negotiable part of building a career as a musician. “TRL is certainly maybe the most important thing at the moment for those top ten artists,” she said.

A 16-year-old Britney Spears premiered her video for “...Baby One More Time” on TRL. You couldn’t watch it anywhere else. Diddy ran on a treadmill for an entire episode. Beyoncé performed during the finale in 2008; now, a decade later, almost 20 times more people follow her on Instagram than watched the VMAs this year.

TRL’s successful return would amount to a hit precisely when MTV needs one the most. For at least half a decade, the network has been stuck in a ratings slump. Since 2011, it has lost almost 50 percent of its 18–49 demographic, according to Forbes. It now ranks lower in ratings than VH1, a network that seems to stay afloat solely on the back of Love and Hip Hop. As for the VMAs, viewership has declined steadily every year since 2014, and 2017’s show was the lowest-rated ceremony since 1994.

Last year, as a final, desperate blast of air into MTV’s deflating balloon, Viacom hired Chris McCarthy as MTV’s new president. Previously called in by the company to revive VH1 and Logo, he was once again tasked with restoring a wrinkled television network to its former youthful glory.

McCarthy’s plan: air a tentpole scripted show like Scream or Teen Wolf each quarter, produce more reality TV (Siesta Key, a reality show about teens in the Florida Gulf Coast, just got a second season order), and focus more on live programming. That’s where TRL comes in, at least in theory.

The MTV studios are big — 8,700 square feet, to be exact. About a third of the studio space was taken over from a liquidated Aeropostale retail store, which is kind of like opening a disco in a home where someone recently died. The best way to describe the studios is “loud,” in an orange pants kind of way, not a volume way. A red couch made of the letters T, R, and L manages to combine obvious branding and the allure of comfort, even though sitting would be at odds with the show’s manic energy. The DJ booth is barricaded by a supremely corny pair of four-foot-high headphones. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out across Times Square, where musicians can peer down at dozens of adoring fans.

It’s a good thing that Aeropostale went out of business, too, because TRL needs the room. There are so many people on camera during any given episode that it can be difficult to tell who’s a host and who’s a fan plucked from the crowd. Other than D.C. Young Fly, the TRLsquad” includes Tamara Dhia, a former video host at Complex; Erik Zachary, a KISS FM radio host; DJ Amy Pham; entertainment reporter Lawrence Jackson; and a bunch of YouTubers: Gigi Gorgeous, Gabbie Hanna, Eva Gutowski, Liza Koshy, and the Dolan Twins. Many of the hosts were children, or not even born yet, when TRL was at the height of its popularity.

“When the original TRL came out, we were really young,” Ethan Dolan told me. “It was 1998 when it started, so we were... ” He trails off, and Grayson Dolan cuts in, “Uh, zero. Negative-one years old.”

“Uh, zero. Negative-one years old.”

Then there’s the near-constant parade of celebrity guests. Lil Uzi Vert, Rita Ora, and Nick Jonas (filling in for Demi Lovato) all performed during Wednesday’s episode. DJ Khaled showed up on Monday to offer a moment of silence for victims of the Las Vegas shooting. Playboi Carti’s performance on Tuesday was so sluggish, it felt like he’d been blackmailed just to show up. Even with the acknowledgement that TRL deserves a warm-up period as much as any revival, it’s hard to see its loosely organized spontaneity playing well long-term.

In an interview with Variety, Chris McCarthy said that the “great thing about being live [is] it allows us to be in the culture live, in real time.” But reacting to the culture in real time might pose more challenges than advantages for TRL. All of the hosts are relatively green, and are still getting their footing in front of cameras that broadcast their faces live to thousands of people. On Wednesday’s episode, Amy Pham responded to Tamara Dhia’s “What you got cookin’?” with a joyful “That’s right!” We’ve all blurted out something vague in response to a question we didn’t actually hear; we just haven’t done it on live TV.

However, some issues were out of the hosts’ control. As The Daily Beast pointed out, they struggled to appropriately address the shooting in Las Vegas on Monday’s inaugural episode (a difficult task, even for a seasoned anchor), and they apparently chose to ignore the news of Tom Petty’s fatal cardiac arrest. Whether out of confusion, nervousness, or pure exhaustion, it’s hard to know.

“We used to live in a 24-hour pop culture cycle, now we live in a two-hour pop culture cycle,” showrunner Albert Lewitinn told The Verge a week before the premiere. “Things that happened an hour-and-a-half ago are old news already. So we have to be on top of that. And the TRL brand is on top of that.”

By marketing the new TRL as both a live news source and a wacky, youthful (always youthful), game show, McCarthy and Lewitinn have forced the network to compete with social media — Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat all have live video components — as well as cable news networks already equipped to cover breaking news. In several interviews before TRL launched, including one with The Verge, the pair each repeated the same talking point separately: “TRL was social media before social media.”

That’s true to some extent, and it sounds good, but the talking point ignores the fact that we’re now living after social media. And the new TRL seems to ignore that, too. When I asked Lewitinn what the difference was now between TRL and social media, he said, “The difference is that it’s live.”

YouTube feels like the biggest elephant in the room, especially because many of the correspondents got their start on the platform. And MTV probably needs them more than they need MTV. Music videos don’t need MTV anymore either, also because of YouTube, and in this version of TRL, videos have been relegated to a time-filler rather than a centerpiece. It took three episodes before the show aired a single video, and even that’s a stretch: Wednesday’s episode just showed previews of Fat Joe and Avicii videos.

Has ‘TRL’ changed, or have I?

It’s easy to claim retroactively that TRL was better in the old days. The show is already a time capsule; a strange, staged mashup of Mariah Carey appearances, after-school special vibes, and, of course, music videos. Opening a time capsule two decades later is bound to feel both premature and dated. But the most obvious indicator that the new TRL is a mess is that no one seems equipped to articulate what it, or MTV for that matter, actually is in 2017.

“Don’t forget, MTV is a pop culture brand, and so it’s a… it’s a youth pop culture brand,” Lewitinn, Class of Tenafly High ‘86, said. “But youth can be defined as anything. I’m still youthful, so youth is in the eye of the beholder.”

It’s also possible that TRL hasn’t changed that much, and that this criticism is just a natural part of audience turnover. The first comment underneath a 2008 New York Times article mourning the end of TRL reads, “I hated that show and I am so glad it is gone.”

Maybe TRL was never going to save MTV.

The Dolan Twins.
The Dolan Twins.