In premiering music videos and bringing artists onto the set, MTV stresses
the strong "democratic" appeal of TRL. MTV executives say it's a program which
takes its cues from its teen audience, asking them to send in requests on
which records to play. But media critics say TRL is just a large focus group,
guided by MTV and used to promote and sell artists and records and, because
of the commercial forces behind MTV, sharply limiting choices for their
audience. Below are some opposing viewpoints on what TRL is all about.
New York Times music critic
Well, the brilliant idea behind TRL that really works--an old idea, but it's
been revamped--is that kids are consumers and their power is mostly the power
of consumption. ... And when you give a teenager a job at age 14 or 15 working
at McDonald's, they have their own expendable income and people are very
hungry for that money with this generation, because it's a large generation.
So "Total Request Live" came about at a moment when that awareness of the Baby
Boomlet as a consumer demographic hit a kind of fever pitch in our culture.
And it really worked. ...
Let's look at "Total Request Live" as the world's biggest focus group, because
that's really what it is. I mean it's just a public version of what happens
when they put 20 people in a room and give 'em a new flavor of chewing gum and
say, "Do you like this?" The chewing gum is called Christina Aguilera.
That's really what happens.
So it's taking a business idea and transplanting it to a new venue, but it's
[like]"American Top 40" and Dick Clark in the past. Remember when people used
to rate records on Top 40? "Can you dance to it?" "It's got a nice beat.
I'll give it a nine"? That's the same thing as "Total Request Live," just
What is TRL's role in the music industry?
The role of MTV itself is very significant. ... Not every band gets a video
anymore. And so, the first tier is getting that video at all. Then the next
tier is--are you the kind of artist who they think they can bring to a mass
artist? Then the next tier is--are you the kind of artist that they think you
can break to a mass audience?
Only that really tiny, tiny elite gets on "Total Request Live." What it does
to your average record label, major record label division is it creates an
intense caste system that was already there, but it makes it more. So you have
the upper echelon and then everybody else is way down here. The resources for
smaller bands on a major label are very small now, and a lot of artists feel
that it's not even worth it to sign with a major. Are they really going to get
that small record into the stores? There are many tales of bands touring the
country working hard going into towns and the record isn't in the stores, both
for major and indie labels. But it's a problem with major labels because their
priorities are so intensely focused on that top echelon of artists.
So you're saying MTV has the effect of narrowing choice of
MTV definitely has the effect of narrowing the range of music that hits the
mainstream. On the other hand, isn't that the effect of television in general?
Television has been an illusion in terms of its variety since the beginning. I
think it was one of those big rock stars, Bruce Springsteen, who said "500
channels and nothing on." Now it's just 500 channels and Limp Bizkit on.
How important is TRL as a powerhouse of music?
I think in the dead center of the music industry, TRL is certainly maybe
"the" most important thing at the moment for those top ten artists. For an
artist like Limp Bizkit, they have to do it. I remember very vividly Eminem
when he was coming out with his last album, going on "Total Request Live" and
basically saying, "Look, I know I have to do this. I'm going to market myself
any way I can." It's not like he really wanted to, as a person, an artist,
but they know it's a requirement.
I think for the Backstreet Boys, for 'N Sync--whose image is all tied up
with whether they're number one versus even number two, when number two is seen
as a failure for an artist--that's a lot about TRL. The whole idea that you
can sell so many millions of albums and still be considered kind of a flop,
well, that's very much of this era and I think "Total Request Live" has
completely intensified that.
I guess you could say "Total Request Live" is democratic in the way that
this year's election was democratic. The field of candidates is very
small. And there are organizations behind them, not unlike the Democratic and
Republican parties, who decided which candidates get promoted. So in other
words, you can't just be Joe Fabulous who's releasing your little indie record
and get on "Total Request Live." The record label has to decide you're a
priority. Then the MTV staff have to sort of approve it, right? The execs
have to approve it. Then, maybe by then, you'll get some kind of prescreening
and then finally you get one slot. And it's the hardest slot to get. You have
as much chance as an artist of getting on "Total Request Live" as a young
athlete making the NBA -- no, less--making the all-star team....
MTV executive vice president for news &
TRL is the signature show for MTV because it's about the audience and the
audience controls all the videos that we play--what they want to hear, what
they want to see. So for that reason it's really important to MTV. And I
think also because the choices that they're making and have made for the last
couple of years are a real interesting mix of hip-hop music, pop music, and
rock music ... It's not just one type of music. And I think that's what the
audience is saying they are about.
What's the philosophy of making the audience part of the shows?
...You know, you can't sit here in Times Square in an office building and just
suppose that you know everything that either they want to see or will watch.
You have to get out there and be with them. You have to get out there and
touch them and talk to them. And just this kind of thing as "Total Request
Live"--utilizing our studio....The veejay search, things like that that we do.
We get out there and meet a thousand young people from all over the country and
you ask them questions. "What do you like? What do you not like?" And,
obviously, there's a more, there's a research group who do it, too, an
unbelievable degree for us. But that's really what it's about. We creally
took the philosophy that you can't just sit here and say, "Oh, we know what a
19 year-old's thinking."
TRL's a huge star-making vehicle. Talk about that.
I mean, it is definitely a two-way street. Acts that have the right sound of
the moment--whether MTV and TRL were on the air or not--are going to be
successful. I mean there's been great rock-pop-rap music pre-MTV. We all know
What I think it does is somebody comes on TRL, they play a video of theirs,
maybe it's premiered. Maybe it's the kind of thing that a certain audience
wouldn't have been exposed to and all of a sudden they hear Kid Rock for the
first time, Limp Bizkit for the first time. And and more more people who are
watching TRL start finding out about this band and then you start buying the
records. The band comes on the show, they hang out, they have a good time,
they have a good rapport with Carson, and it does build. I think MTV has been
responsible for helping to break a number of acts.
You seem to be sort of a feedback loop for the audience...
Look, there are times when the folks who run the music department here make
absolutely terrific decisions and break new acts and we say, you know, "This
person, this act, this is pretty cool, this is something unique. This is
something that's in the MTV moment. Let's go for it." And it works
tremendously and everything falls into place -- Britney Spears.
And then there are times when we all feel something really important's going on
and we really dig an act and give it exposure in different places and it
doesn't quite take off. That happens, too.
So, I do think so much of it is in the hands of the viewers. It's in the hands
of the artists or the musician or act themselves. You know, just getting
exposure on MTV is not "it". You know, it's what you do with that. Same thing
for us. The responsibility falls to us as well. What kind of interesting
programming can we make, can we create, to put these different acts in? ...
How does the power of TRL jive with the record companies' objectives?
The only stuff that we ever make the decisions about are what videos are going
to be premiered on TRL. Every week we premiere a number of videos that we deem
appropriate for TRL. ... Sometimes a band'll premiere a video and it won't show
up again. The fans vote. The fans can go online or the fans call up and we
tally all those votes. Sometimes we use the votes in the studio audience as
well. We usually have them fill out a form. Sometimes we even take votes down
on the street, compile all that information together and that's where we get
the top ten. And it's ten-to-one. Number one was the most popular, got the
most votes, all the way down to number ten. .... And then there's been times
the other way. A video that we were sort of surprised about, "Oh, is this
really popular? Wow. Okay." And before you know it, it's been on every day
for three or four weeks.
So the record companies don't try to pressure you?
No. As far as to the Ten Play list. We're not picking them and they know it.
So that's not the pressure situation. You know, there's sometimes the normal
pressure of, "Hey, can you premiere this video in the show?" and that's the
normal course of business that we go through, but they could say whatever they
want to try to get something to be number one, or number two or number three.
It's the audience out there.
The New Yorker writer and author of
Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing-The Marketing of Culture
I think TRL is the feedback loop at its very tightest. What you're seeing
there is, supposedly, it's all what the audience wants. But in fact, MTV is
using that platform as a way of introducing videos that they want to put into
heavy rotation, of having hosts that they think are sort of future MTV stars,
and doing it all under the umbrella of "This is what the audience wants."
I think what you've got with MTV is you've got this constant sort of
relationship between the audience that's constantly getting smarter and more
clued into the kind of manipulative techniques that MTV is using. And then you
have MTV that's constantly got to be better at manipulating the audience to get
them to watch what they want them to watch. And with TRL, I think you're
seeing kind of the flashpoint of those two kinds of desires coming together.
MTV's president of programming
... When you're in a position of being at MTV, you receive 200 videos a week to
look at. And I think that that tends to be about the first place where certain
ideas and certain thoughts of a generation begin to show up.
... The reason the audience trusts us in the first place is because we don't
censor. We present their art in the most honest way ... We won't cross
violence lines. We won't cross certain language lines. But otherwise we will
let the art express itself as purely as possible.
I would say that MTV works on two levels. We see ourselves as champion of
artists. And whether we like it or not, the themes that artists sometimes
choose to embrace reflects sometimes anger, sometimes views that we would never
agree with. We aren't going to censor the artist for the most part, beyond
standard television network standards. As MTV, we do believe that we have some
broader role in educating consumers, in getting behind social campaigns like
our campaign to vote, our campaign to stop violence.
MTV's an absolutely incredibly powerful medium. But for me, I think that
the power we have is overestimated. No matter how much I like it, if it's not
meant to connect it's not going to. So if the artist doesn't have talent or
the producing entity behind the artist doesn't have talent, you're not going to
see a connection. No matter how many times we bang the video, it doesn't
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