The Legacy Of ‘TRL,’ In Bigger Than The Sound

The request show, which goes on hiatus in November, was YouTube before the video-sharing site even existed.

On The Record: The Legacy Of “TRL” (No, Really)

In a way, I suppose it was somewhat fitting that I heard about the shelving of “TRL” not from a super-secret corporate memo or a closed-door meeting with PowerPoint presentations, but rather in a text message from a friend. After all, it was the kind of news you usually get from a buddy of yours — something slightly terrible yet completely expected, right on par with “Did you hear so-and-so’s parents are getting divorced?” or “Did you know your ex-girlfriend is now a Suicide Girl?”

Because, let’s face it: “TRL” has been on the air for a decade now (which, to borrow a quote from the good folks over at Entertainment Weekly‘s PopWatch Blog, is “equivalent to maybe 200 in human years” for this network); has launched more than a few careers; and has had more than its fair share of memorable moments (Mariah Carey’s 2001 ice-cream-fueled striptease/meltdown being about five of them). It has been the hottest thing on television, the stalest thing since week-old bread and a cultural tipping point (you probably don’t remember, but “TRL” really shouldered the brunt of the whole “MTV is ruining society” thing back before Lauren and Audrina graced our airwaves). And over the course of more than 2,000 shows (and just as many hosts), it’s also become something that I don’t think anyone could’ve predicted: an institution of sorts. But having said all that, its time has come.

Of course, this has less to do with the show itself than it does with the fact that, in 2008, the idea of a video-countdown show seems impossibly antiquated. With the state of labels and the rise of sites like MySpace and YouTube, music videos are no longer the primary means of promotion for an artist or an album (they’re probably not even necessary, though we’ll leave that debate for another day), and you can basically say the same thing about “TRL.” And while the show isn’t leaving us for good — rather than being canceled outright, it’s apparently just “resting” for a while — it’s a pretty safe bet that even if it is resurrected someday, it won’t be the “TRL” you grew up with. It will be rejiggered and reinvigorated … and, god willing, something much, much better.

So, in a lot of ways, this seems like a pretty good time to stand over the casket, close our eyes tight and deliver a eulogy for “TRL,” a show that ultimately was drowned by the waves it helped create.

Because, whether anyone associated with the show ever realizes it, “TRL” will probably not be remembered for the stars it helped create or the shiny studio it vacated but, rather, for the legacy it leaves behind … one that is simply stated, yet massive in scope: “TRL” was YouTube before YouTube ever existed.

Seriously. Because as soon as “TRL” really started gaining steam — say, in the fall of 1999, when a live studio audience was added to the mix — the innovations were fast and furious. With the introduction of the live audience came those little windows featuring squealing tweens (you know, the ones who would pop up during, say, the new Britney video). At the time, they were rather annoying — except when some poor girl would freeze up on live TV, and then black-hearted hilarity would ensue — but now it’s fairly obvious that these were the prototypes of a million “video diaries” that would come to populate YouTube in the years to come. These were kids talking directly to the camera (and, in a way, to the audience at home), which had never been done before. Stylistically (and sentiment-wise), it was the kind of stuff we’d see in the entire lonelygirl15 series or just about any other so-called vlog you can think of these days. It’s de rigueur now, but back in 1999, it was groundbreaking.

After that came the whole concept of “instant feedback” — videos were voted on by viewers at home, and (in later years) those same viewers were able to submit messages that would scroll along the bottom of the screen during videos — something akin to commenting on a YouTube clip or leaving a sticky note or even favorite-ing a video. Again, rather groundbreaking stuff, and all happening on a live TV show that broadcast five days a week.

And while we could debate about those stylistic points, I don’t think there’s any denying this: At its very heart, “TRL” was the first television show that turned the camera squarely on the audience. It made them the stars of the show — they dictated where it went and what videos made the cut. They contributed to the ebb and flow on a daily basis … and the fact that the show was unfolding live before our very eyes only further emphasized that. Truly, “TRL” was the first program of its kind that could turn on a dime, could begin as one thing on a Monday and by Friday be something completely different. “TRL” was marketed as being “your show,” and it really was. And that sentiment, that sense of spontaneity and that viewer-controlled flexibility is what made YouTube into the culture-defining thing it is today.

Of course, it bears mentioning that all those achievements also contributed to the show’s demise. As “TRL” grew in popularity, the sideshow (the audience, the viewers at home) became the main attraction, and the videos were almost an afterthought, chopped down to 30- then 15-second blips on the radar. It was a move that shortened our already nanosecond-length attention spans and only further devalued the videos themselves, until it got to the point where YouTube supplanted “TRL” as the place for kids to watch music videos, because, hey, they were really nothing more than disposable products anyway … the kind of stuff perfectly suited to be viewed in grainy quality on a computer screen.

And when the videos became less of an event, so did the show. Not to mention the fact that YouTube gave visitors unfiltered, uncensored (sort of) content and allowed them even, uh, “instant-er” feedback. And that, really, was game, set and match. Hosts came and went, guests popped in and popped out, but “TRL” was starting to lose its luster. And now, just a few days after it’s 10th birthday, it’s headed out to pasture. You might stand and cheer about that fact — “Good riddance!” — or you might be a bit sad (you might also be indifferent, which is kind of the last thing you’re going for in the world of television). But however you feel, I think it’s important to remember “TRL” for what it was: really groundbreaking, incredibly important television — a show whose impact is still being felt today … and the launching pad for Carson Daly, of course.

And that’s a legacy-capper if I’ve ever heard one.

Questions? Concerns? “TRL” memories? Send ‘em to me at BTTS@MTVStaff.com.