'TRL' Without the "R": Can MTV's Music Video Program Survive Without Music Videos?

Monday's premiere of the '90s countdown show revival didn't even acknowledge the lack of videos.
Courtesy of MTV
The hosts of 'TRL'

The timing could not have been much worse for TRL's return. On a day where the entire world, including the music world, was reeling from the unspeakable tragedy that left over 50 dead and more than 500 injured at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, music fans were asked to divert their attention to a resurrection of the music video program that set new standards for frivolity in pop music two decades earlier. It was hardly the circumstances under which you'd want to launch a rebrand of your once-flagship program.

However, with everyone's eyes on the horrors in Las Vegas, a revelation about Nu-TRL that might've started a torrential backlash before the show even started did go largely unnoticed: EW reported that in addition to certain other notable differences from the original series, the TRL reboot would pivot away from the first show's video-countdown format. As in, there were zero music videos played during the show's premiere hour, with no promise of more videos to come.

As ironic as it may be to have a show whose name stands for "Total Request Live" do away with any notion of requests, commenting on that irony is a largely joyless enterprise, considering its parent channel, whose name stands for "Music Television," now openly acknowledges that music is no longer its particular focus. (Spoiler: VH1 does not play Video Hits First anymore, either.) And to some extent, a decentralization of videos at the show's core was inevitable, and likely logical: If videos alone could still sustain TRL, MTV wouldn't have given it the boot 10 years ago, when videos still had a decent (if declining) amount of cultural currency. The show would have to evolve, to acknowledge the changing times, to acknowledge a world outside the teen-pop bubble.

Not to mention that ahead of its debut, showrunner Albert Lewitinn told The Hollywood Reporter that "requests are the heart of the show."

Its absence feels extreme. What was staggering about Monday's TRL re-premiere was not just that it lacked music videos, but that it didn't even acknowledge their absence: No explanation was given as to the show's new format, and if you weren't old enough to have seen the show a decade-plus ago, you might assume it was always just a combination of studio chatter, fan engagement and live performance. In fact, it's hard to recall if the words "music" and "video" were ever even uttered next to one another. It's a little surreal, like if The Weakest Link were resurrected as a panel discussion, with no one ever referencing how the show used to involve trivia.

It also feels shortsighted. No, music videos are not the cultural force they once were, nor is MTV the primary outlet to feature them. But if MTV believes that there's a lack of interest when it comes to young music fans and their desire to vote for their favs in popularity contests...well, it seems strange to say, but they may need to spend more time on Twitter. The appetite is there, as are the artists: K-pop, girl groups, boy bands, viral rappers, YouTube stars and plenty of other lightning rods for super-fandom — the kind who powered TRL's success those years ago. A pared-back version of the countdown format — maybe just a Top 5, with only new videos played in full — would've made sense, with plenty of room still for guest banter, fan servicing and looks outside the world of music.

The biggest hit to TRL of losing the video format might just be in terms of practicality. The countdown not only gave TRL 1.0 an identity, it ate up a lot of clock; now, the hosts essentially have to produce filler for a whole hour. Live performances helped anchor the debut episode — one from Migos and two from Ed Sheeran — but that still left an uncomfortable amount of time for excessive camera pans around the studio, awkward games with star guests and a whole lot of self-defeating "TRL! HISTORY! ISN'T THIS EXCITING?!?!?"-type vamping. Perhaps by necessity, the show's new hosts went big and broad — Internet personality DC Young Fly in particular probably needed an oxygen tank in between segments — but they just don't have the experience yet to keep the show running on empty, and their outsized exuberance all but squeezed the guests out of the frame at times.

The most telling bits about the show's failings were predictably centered around their response to the Las Vegas tragedy. To be fair, this would've been an impossible situation for any show to properly address in its first episode, especially with a roster of rookie hosts and an untested, unproved new format. But MTV's attempts to cover the shooting with a short, recurring anti-gun violence PSA, some clunkily delivered teleprompting from DC and — in particular — sagacity from the officially branded "Godfather of TRL," DJ Khaled ("There’s a lot of things going on in the world right now. We have to stay focused...that is what we call a very important key"), all fell completely flat, particularly as slotted between attempts to rile up the crowd with "TRL WOOOOOO!!!" hype.

Given the tone-deafness of Lewitinn's response to questioning about whether or not he would consider having President Donald Trump as a show guest, it's hardly surprising that wokeness isn't a strength of the early show — though in truth, social conscience is one of the few things MTV has actually excelled at with its event programming the past year, so it might've been wise for the show to lean into that with the TRL reboot. Instead, the hour's only real moment of truth came when DC threw to Khaled, sitting in his yellow throne, for some big-picture thoughts on the Vegas shooting — "DJ Khaled is the master of positivity. So could you please take this one? 'Coz we need some words of wisdom big bro" — and the camera lingered silently on an unresponsive Khaled for a supremely uncomfortable 15 seconds. It was almost certainly a technical glitch, rather than a statement on the futility of looking for solace in response to one of the worst events in American history, but it was still the most powerful moment of the show's debut.

The premiere wasn't without its moments. The spark of the old days was briefly revived when Sheeran was asked to choose between two mega-Sheerios in Times Square, who had to prove their superior love for the pop star ("I SPENT THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS ON YOU!" "MY PHONE AUTO-CORRECTS GOD TO ED SHEERAN!") to earn a trip up to the TRL studio — and, happy ending, both of 'em won. The show also did throw in one very brief nod to its own history, when Migos were asked to identify a picture of the show's original host ("That Carson Daly!"), a nice moment for all involved. And some of the episode's instincts — inviting on a young girl who went viral rapping along to "Bodak Yellow," allowing Sheeran to shout out a lesser-known singer-songwriter bud via the official TRL playlist — were good ones, which could pay off once the show finds its footing a little better.

But the show has a very long way to go in re-establishing itself at the core of American pop culture. Making music videos essential again would've been the simplest, if not necessarily the easiest, path toward doing that — but if it hopes to do so as an all-things-to-all-kids entertainment show, it needs to get a lot better at being entertaining, and finding exactly what its lane is. As the Godfather himself would say, stay focused.

A version of this story originally posted on Billboard.

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