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Total Request Live: MTV's most popular show for teens

they did it all for the nookie

Behind the Scenes:

On the day FRONTLINE's cameras went inside TRL in the fall of 2000, the guest band was Limp Bizkit, the reigning princes of rap-metal.

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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.

Ann Powers
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 flashier now.

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 music?

photo of fred durst
Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit
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....

David Sirulnick
MTV executive vice president for news & production

photo of dave sirulnick 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 that.

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.

photo of the kids
The Viewers
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.

John Seabrook
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.

Brian Graden
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.

I want to hear NSYNC
Requesting a Video
... 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 happen.

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