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Interview: David Sirulnick

David Sirulnick is MTV's Executive Vice President for News and Production.

Why is "Total Request Live" ("TRL") your signature show.

"Total Request Live" is the signature show for MTV because it's about the audience. The audience controls what we play, 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. Also, the choices that they're making, and have made for the last couple of years are really interesting. It's a real interesting mix of hip-hop music, pop music, and rock music. If you look at the aggregate of what has been played over the last couple of years, it's a really interesting blend. It's not just one type of music. And that's what the audience is saying they are about.

You can't really pigeonhole them and say that they just like one thing. Young people today in their teens and early 20s are much more complex than perhaps folks were who were that age 10, 15, 20 years ago. There's a lot more stimuli. There are a lot more choices, and that's reflected in "Total Request Live." You can have Limp Bizkit next to 'N Sync, next to Korn, next to DMX, and have all different kinds of music represented at any given time on the show. So that's one of the reasons that "TRL" is so important.

And the other reason is because it's live and it's every afternoon. It's live here from Times Square, the center of the world. If you're a young person coming home from school or work and "TRL" is on, or if you happen to catch it in one of the reruns later on, there's a certain energy that comes from a show live in the middle of Times Square. There are all the different things that we can do outside, all the different segments we do, all the different guests who drop by. Today, Limp Bizkit were here. And there've been times when Fred Durst, the leader of Limp Bizkit, will be down the block just eating lunch or at the recording studio or something and he'll just come stop by. Puffy and Bad Boy Records are across the street. He's always stopping by. And you get that kind of feel within the community that people can just stop by and hang out, and the fans know that as well.

And, again, just as importantly, people know that when they visit New York from all over the country and stop by here and see "TRL", you can sometimes get in. You become an audience member inside, which is pretty exciting for most of the folks. . . . Sometimes you get people's autograph. Sometimes you get to play in some little context, and all of a sudden win tickets to something, or get some gift bag or something.

And, of course, outside, "The Today Show" has their outside crowd for a certain segment of the population. But if you're under the age of 25 and you want to see what's going on, right here on the corner of 44th and 45th and Broadway in Times Square is the place to come hang out, because we're doing live television. You have a chance to get on TV, which is a chance that most people around the country don't really have. We are nationwide, so it's not like your local news back in Cincinnati. It is nationwide. Everybody gets to see you. You get to look at the camera and tell them what videos you like, and sometimes you get to play as part of the show. All of that combined is what's helped make "TRL" kind of the flagship show for MTV for the last couple of years.

And we've just introduced a new show that started about a month ago called "DFX," that airs just slightly later. It's kind of a hip-hop version, where viewers are picking all the videos, but in a different way. They're voting on which video head-to-head will air. We're hoping that that will take off as well, and so far, the early returns are looking pretty good. So we're hoping for that, as well.

What's the philosophy of making the audience part of the shows?

We can only be responsible for what we have on the air.  We can't be responsible for what folks are doing off our air, saying off our air, whatever. When we're doing our best, it's really about MTV making a connection with a viewer. We're reflecting the viewers' lives, hopefully accurately. We're taking them to places that they might not normally go when we do a series like "Diary," which is a very personal look at the life of a particular musician or actor or actress. And there is "Cribs," another new show we have, where we're going into the homes of rock, pop, and rap stars, and they're getting a personal tour; again, taking them to a place they wouldn't normally go to--taking them somewhere where they wouldn't have the opportunity to be creates connection.

We have shows like "Real World" and "Road Rules" and shows that reflect the lives of young people. We have a documentary series called "True Life." It's all about the lives that young people are leading, and accurately reflecting that, so that they can see what other people are doing. . . . It's this connection point, where people all over the country--whether you're living in Florida or Maine, in Michigan or in Arizona-- you can have this kind of communal experience together by watching MTV. You can see what other people like yourself are doing, see what people completely different than yourself are doing. That's where that connection comes from, and that's why these kinds of shows are so important to MTV and important to the success of MTV.

We've been doing quite a lot of that over the last two-and-a-half years, and it coincides with some of the most successful times in the history of MTV. More people are watching MTV than ever before. We've been on a real great roll, and those things go together. . . . 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. You have to get out there and talk to them. You have to bring them in to talk to them--in the kind of thing like "Total Request Live", utilizing our studio, or with "DFX," you get to meet them. You get to hang out with them. The VJ search is one of the 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 research group who does it, too, to an unbelievable degree for us. But that's really what it's about. We really took the philosophy that you can't just sit here and say, "Oh, we know what a 19-year-old is thinking."

Has it worked?

It's worked very well, because it allows you an insight that you might not normally know. You're going to make a news show, or you're going to make a show starring one of our VJs. You're going to create a new series. Well, we don't do this so that nobody's going to watch. You do it because you want to make a great TV show. You want to either inform or entertain, or both of those things, and knowing where the audience is at is a key element to this.

We do "Choose or Lose" in the news department, which is all about the presidential campaign. There are a variety of issues to cover. We've got to get out there and ask the audience, "What are the issues that matter to you?" And that's where we're going to focus, because we could spend all year long focusing on issues that the audience goes, "Whatever." But if you hone in on the three or four issues that they really care about, that are hitting them as young voters, we're going to have a lot more success, and it's going to be more successful to them. They're going to say, "Oh, they're talking to me. They're not talking to somebody else. They're talking to me."

And it's the same thing with the entertainment programming. When we do something with any of these bands or actresses, actors, et cetera, we're trying to find out what they are going to get from MTV that they're not going to get anywhere else. What can we deliver to them?

. . . People, viewers, talk about MTV in a very different way than they talk about other television stations. The norm of most television is that you have favorite shows. "Oh, I know when "West Wing" is on." "I know when "Buffy" is on." But not a lot of people say, "I watch a channel." Maybe ESPN is like MTV in that way, and maybe HBO.

We feel that MTV has done a really good job so that young people grow up with this identification of MTV. And then, within that, they obviously have shows that they like to watch, favorite shows, and whatnot. But it's just a different kind of mindset to say that you want to create an environment where somebody between the ages of, like, 16 and 34, feels really at home. They can put on the channel and they can feel like, "All right. This is for me. This is good. This is my thing."

"TRL" is a huge star-making vehicle. Talk about that.

If we know more about their lives, what they want, don't want, you can process that. You don't have to use it to the letter, the feedback.  You take it in, use a lot of it.  Some you discard. 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. There's been great rock/pop/rap music pre-MTV. We all know that. When somebody comes on "TRL," they play a new 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, Christina Aguilera for the first time, whoever, Papa Roach.

Before you know it, it's like a ripple effect. And more and more young people start finding out about it, and more and more people who are watching "TRL" start finding out about this band, and then 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. MTV has been responsible, if you will, for helping to break a number of acts who got their national exposure through being on "TRL."

Who are some examples of those bands?

For example, someone like Kid Rock. His album is out. He's been around for 10 years. His album "Devil Without a Cause" came out, and we were giving him support. But then he played "Fashionably Loud," a fashion event show that we do on MTV. Coupled with that show, right after that, he started making appearances. And his video hadn't been voted on yet. We just all really loved him and just thought, "This guy has really got something." And he was doing really well on other parts of the channel, so we would bring him by; Carson was friends with him and you could see the rapport. And he's a charismatic guy with great star power. So through his appearances, people voted the video on, and then it just kept rolling, the video and then a second video and then the third video, et cetera, et cetera. And he just became a really big star because of some of that boost from "TRL." But honestly, most of it came from him.

Limp Bizkit's a band that's been around and were doing really well. Their cover of the George Michael song, "Faith" was out, and we played it on "TRL" as a premiere, because we thought, "This is a great band. We love this band." We had been doing some stuff with them and we wanted to expose them to the "TRL" audience. And you never know. Sometimes you expose a video and a band and nothing much happens. That happens, too. But sometimes you play "Faith," the next day it's on the Countdown, and it stayed on the Countdown until videos have to be retired on MTV's TRL after they've played 65 days in a row. So that "Faith" video from Limp Bizkit did that. And they released their next album, "Nookie," and on and on and on, and they're probably one of the bigger bands in the world right now. On the other side, you've got a lot of the pop music. Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, 98 Degrees--have all done really well. Ricky Martin, the same kind of thing. A video gets played, there's a buzz about them, and all of a sudden, this seems to be like home base for this kind of stuff that's going on.

Papa Roach is another recent example of a rock band who a lot of people here at the channel all felt really strongly about. We really liked them and we said, "You know what? This is a guy and a band that we think are pretty cool. Let's see if it starts to take off on ""TRL." Expose them a little bit on "TRL". See if it starts getting voted on." It took a little while, but then it did.

You gave two weeks to the Eminem thing.

I would say Eminem is another example of somebody who is really charismatic. He was going to be a star one way or the other. Dre found him, made this incredible first album, incredible first video, again, right time, right place, right combination, and, yes, we supported and we played the video. And immediately, everybody started calling for it. On the first album, four videos in a row, whatever he put out was really successful.

On the release of the second album, we did a number of significant programming around it, same thing. It was going to be undeniable. He sold . . . 1.8 million copies in his first week. That, my guess is, was going to happen. MTV's involvement in it? I'm sure most of the people who bought that album knew that album was coming out. And if we booster-rocketed it? It was a bit of chicken-and-egg, because people were so interested in it, they wanted to see it on MTV. We put him on. We put him on in a couple of interesting ways. We did a news special about his controversial topics. We did an entertainment special about his personality. They both worked very well. The album sold a lot of copies. And he's out there doing his thing.

You seem to be a feedback loop.

There are times when the folks who run the music department here make absolutely terrific decisions and break new acts. And here are new acts that, as a channel, we say, "This person, this act, this is pretty cool. This is something unique. This is something very fresh. 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 is 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. That's the batting average that you've got to play with.

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 acts themselves. Just getting exposure on MTV is not "it." 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 create to put these different acts in? We do a Limp Bizkit kind of special. It's very different than something you're going to do with 'N Sync. It's something different than we're going to do with DMX. It's knowing the music, knowing the fan base, knowing all styles of programming to pick and choose.

When we're thinking about how we're going to cover these guys, there are certain things about 'N Sync that you want to know and you want to cover. There are certain different things about somebody else that you want to cover. So you want that knowledge of knowing the audience and knowing the music and putting all those things together and knowing a culture at the moment. I'm always one who believes that MTV is about the moment. That's really, in my mind, a lot of what "M" stands for in "MTV." Bands, musicians, actors, actresses, all kind of things in pop culture pass into the moment. And then they're in the MTV moment, and then they may come out the other side. It doesn't mean that they're not relevant anymore. It doesn't mean that they are not still worthwhile. It just means that they may have passed the MTV moment.

We live in a certain kind of place, and the audience is constantly telling us what defines that place. It's not hard barriers. People go in and come back out, and go back and forth. But that's kind of where we are. We're in this kind of certain place, and it's what helps define us.

How does the power of "TRL" jive with the record companies' objectives?

They're voted on. The only stuff that we ever make the decisions about are what videos are going to be premiered on the show on "TRL." Every week, we premier a number of videos--acts, musicians, groups, videos, we deem appropriate for "TRL" will get premiered in a show. And, again, something might premier on the show and be on the Countdown the next day. It just happened that the band Offspring were here yesterday, and premiered their brand-new video. It charted the next day. Sometimes a band will premier 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. Depending on the day, depending on what's going on, 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.

We 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. Sometimes it's very close at the end as to what got votes, but that's exactly how it works. There've been times when we've had videos that we thought, "Wow, this is going be on forever," and it's on just for a couple of days and it goes away. And then there have been times the other way. A video that we were 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 that's the mechanism of how it works. And each day, the list gets generated, everybody knows what it is, and we roll them back out to the audience.

So the record companies don't try to pressure you?

No. As far as to Top Ten playlist, there's the easy answer. We're not picking them, and they know it. So that's not the pressure situation. There's sometimes the normal pressure of, "Hey, can you premier this video in the show?" and that's the normal course of business that we go through. They could say whatever they want to try to get something to be number one, or number two or number three--but it's the audience out there, you know.

A guy like Eminem, given what he says--does that ever cause you pause, as executives?

We have a standards department who goes through every video and everything that we play, just like they go through every show we create. Whether it's a news show or whether it's an entertainment show, they go through everything we do, but they work with us on everything we do. So that is in place. We're always having dialogue about every form of music that comes up, about new acts that come up. What are they saying? What's the context in which they're saying it? What are they saying on our air? What are they saying off our air?

We can only be responsible for what we have on the air. We can't be responsible for what folks are doing off our air, saying off our air, whatever. But as far as that goes, we're constantly in that dialogue. We're constantly talking about that and talking about where's the line. and where's the responsibility, and trying to have that open dialogue also with the audience. And, obviously, some of it is through shows like "DFX" and "TRL." Some of it is through other means that our research department conducts for us.

I don't think there's a hard and true line or rule. You have to take everything into consideration. We're talking about an art form, a very big art form: music. We're talking about a very expressive art form. We're talking about something that is cultural, that is cutting edge. I don't think there's an easy answer to say, black or white, A or B.

MTV felt like we needed to get a closer connection to the audience, and to that degree, we had a series of meetings and we said, "One of the new things we can do is get closer to the audience." And that was probably about three years ago now, and we said basically what I was saying before. We said, "If we know more about them, know more about their lives, know more about who they are, what they want, what they don't want, you can process that."

You don't have to use the feedback to the letter. You take it in. You use a lot of it. Some of it you discard. You make decisions based on your professional sense, your professional experience, the group's professional experience, and this element of the feedback that you're getting. You don't take a feedback and go, "Oh, well, they want a show that wants these three things. Make it tomorrow." That doesn't really work. You have to take all these other elements. You have to take in what your experience says and, as a television producer, what you can do and build on the feedback you get.

So that's where we came from-- that we can make this stuff better. We can make a better MTV that has a better connection with the audience if we talk to them and listen to them a lot more. Using that as our foundation, then you build from there. You have try to feel the nuances and deal with everything as individuals. And that's what we, as MTV, try to do.

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