How MTV’s TRL Met Its Slow, But Inevitable Demise

You couldn’t get away from Total Request Live at the turn of the 20th century. Their formula of counting down the day's top videos was the anchor of MTV's programming for years, even if said videos skewed immensely heavy toward throwaway bubblegum pop or rap-rock/nu-metal that in retrospect hasn't aged too well. By the time it left the airwaves in 2008, lots of people hardly noticed, chiefly because its decline was so gradual.

TRL demise

There wasn’t one ultimate factor that drove the show dubbed TRL off MTV’s airwaves. Rather, a lot of little issues accumulated over time, each one chipping away at TRL’s foundation in unique ways. Collectively, the following factors weakened the base so thoroughly, there was no other direction for the show to go other than a downward spiral. Whether we’re better off for its demise is up to debate – one that may or may not be fueled by your own taste in music.  But regardless, here's how it went down...

The Daly Show

Carson Daly was more than the host of TRL – he was the glue that kept the show together. A former DJ at LA’s influential KROQ-FM – the talent factory that also helped launch Jimmy Kimmel’s and Adam Carolla’s careers – Daly’s breezy charm and likeability kept the show grounded no matter what musician or diva dropped by the Times Square studio.  It also caught the eye of many a TV executive.

carson daly

Carson Daly & TRL promoting a movie instead of music...

By the early 2000’s, Daly parlayed all that attention into one killer gig after another, from his own late-night talk show Last Call with Carson Daly to correspondent gigs on Today. He quickly became so busy, he simply had no time left to devote to TRL, and he parted ways in 2002.

The show never recovered. MTV tried to keep things afloat by bringing in cool hosts like Vanessa Minnillo and Damien Fahey, but nobody could come close replicate Daly’s affable persona, which was crucial in forging a connection with viewers. And as always, with change comes resistance.

They Rarely Played Videos in Full

A funny thing happened to TRL as the show progressed. Much like MTV itself, the videos they purported to tout started to disappear. Toward the end of the show, sliced-and-diced snippets of the videos became nothing more than background fodder as the network used the shows to push different agendas.

Some of these additions made sense given what the M in MTV supposedly stood for, as the program became a place for musicians to be interviewed. Most of the content did not, as they were either glorified promos for other MTV shows or interviews with celebrities with little to no connection with the music industry (irrelevant native advertising as seen on most magazine covers today). Add in extra ad space, and suddenly the entire premise of the show – that is, to watch videos – went poof.

It was a decision that got noticed, and not in a good way. Record labels and their executives were quite upset, feeling that the show devolved into nothing more than a waste of their artists’ time – not to mention the labels’ money.

The Reality of Reality Shows

It’s been a longstanding joke that MTV doesn’t have anything to do with music these days. The biggest culprit to fuel that motif is reality television, and its rise on the network undeniably helped put a death knell on TRL.

reality tv shows

TRL got beat by shows about rich kid's birthday parties... (that's Jennifer Lawrence, by the way)

You can blame the viewers on this one. In 2000, TRL was being watched by some 700,000 viewers on a daily basis – impressive for a niche cable network. By the show’s end in 2008, the show was attracting roughly half of those eyeballs. Meanwhile, an audience six times the size of TRL’s was turning their attention toward the batch of reality shows peddled by the network.

The quality of what they were tuning into was guilty-pleasure trash at best. History’s already not looking too kindly on shows like The Hills, My Super Sweet 16, and Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County. Still, the shows at the time caught the kind of zeitgeist that TRL no longer could thanks to their deeper exposé at people living lifestyles many young viewers fantasized about.

The Growth of the Internet

One of TRL’s strengths was the waiting game. In its heyday, if you wanted to watch a video, you had to take the time to tune into the program to do so. Then the Internet happened.

Visually speaking, the biggest online gut punch delivered to TRL was YouTube, which of course made it possible for fans to check out a video of their favorite bands and artists with a single click. Sure, they may have had to sit through an embedded ad for laundry detergent for 15 seconds, but that seemed a small price to pay in relation to the medium’s relative immediacy.

youtube killed mtv trl

The backbone of TRL’s existence was compromised. They simply couldn’t keep up with this new outlet – particularly since they couldn’t be bothered to show the full video in the first place.

The Videos Were Terrible

When you think MTV and Videos, your mind tends to wander to the classics: “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys; “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel; “Beat It” by Michael Jackson. Conversely, you may struggle to recall videos that ran during TRL’s prime. That’s because the videos during that time were pretty lousy.

This wasn’t TRL’s fault. Rather, the decrease in music industry revenues caused video budgets to be substantially slashed. This resulted in a massive amount of videos that lacked the creativity and flair of the prior era.

By the time innovative bands like OK Go revived the medium through quirky self-produced videos, the Internet’s reach was in full swing. Bands didn’t need TRL – or MTV in general – to promote their material. Not that they’d show the thing in its entirety anyway.

The Attack of the Clone

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. That may be true, but in TRL’s case, mimicry helped contribute to its death, in the form of the BET program 106 & Park.

106 and park

The BET show was virtually a TRL clone, except for one vital difference: it aggressively homed in on the hip-hop and R&B market; two music genres that were completely dominating the charts in the late 2000’s. Audiences responded quite positively to this focus, and how: when TRL was canned, 106 & Park was the most watched music show amongst young people on cable.

Eventually, 106 & Park suffered the same fate as TRL – it got the axe in 2014. Perhaps its once-rabid fans discovered the awesome power of the Internet, too.

MTV Had a Back-Up Plan

One of the reasons why MTV had no problem letting TRL go was because it already had a back-up show ready to go. The reserve show, however, was a bit of a head-scratcher. Called FNMTV (short for “Friday Night MTV”), the show was a replica of what TRL once was.

Friday Night MTV FNMTV

The show was a blend of live performances and videos – played in full, no less – hosted by Fall Out Boy front man Pete Wentz. Although its DNA was copped from TRL, it was only shown once a week to keep things fresh. However, the strategy didn’t work – while it launched in 2008, it didn’t live long enough to see 2009.

Without a doubt, the advent of video tech on the internet was the final nail in the coffin for Total Request Live, but perhaps it could have taken a few more blows and lasted longer if MTV hadn't undermined the entire point of the show by not playing full videos or not playing them at all in certain segments.

It was a good run, and one I enjoyed as a teenager in the late 90's and 00's... and believe it or not, after all these years, MTV is set to relaunch TRL later this year with five rotating guests and a daily show that might run two to three hours in length.