The Countdown Reaches Zero For MTV's TRL

The phrase "end of an era" is hackneyed, but in this context it truly applies: The cancellation of Total Request Live, or TRL as it has become better known, represents MTV's final severing of any meaningful ties to its original purpose, the showcasing of music.

The last TRL won't air in its regular late-afternoon weekday period; rather, it's getting a typical timeslot for big specials: Sunday at 8 p.m. The occasion will no doubt prompt many who have abandoned TRL as their musical tastes changed -- or as their teenage free time gave way to the college grind and then to the demands of marriage -- to come back to say goodbye. Original TRL host Carson Daly will be back too, in order to see off the series that made him famous.

Among those appearing on the special, dubbed "Total Finale Live," will be the Backstreet Boys, the cornerstone act in the early days of TRL. Fall Out Boy, Beyonce, Snoop Dogg, Kid Rock and Justin Timberlake are also expected to be on hand for the burial service.

Many have credited the debut of TRL with kicking off the teenpop boom of the late 1990s. In truth, the Backstreet Boys were already a pretty big deal when the show premiered, but exposure on TRL sent the Boys to a new level, and both Britney Spears and 'N Sync came along months later to turn the teen trickle into a flood. The phenomena fed off each other: The show benefited from easy access to the biggest new stars in music, and the performers learned, as their '80s forebears had, that if you were photogenic, MTV could be a bigger boost to your career than more conservative radio.

MTV had experimented with live daily programming prior to TRL, but the combination of Daly, the then-brand-new Times Square studio, the predominantly teenage studio audience and the excitement of the teenpop trend proved to be dynamite. At the time the program debuted in 1998, it was already a cliche to ask whatever became of the "music" in MTV. But at the turn of the century, after The Real World had ceased to be a true sensation but before Laguna Beach and The Hills, it was clear that TRL had become the flagship show on the channel.

To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, the end of TRL came gradually and then suddenly. Daly's presence waned as he ramped up his thoroughly disposable NBC talk show Last Call, ending completely by 2003. No one at the channel stepped up to become the face of TRL as Daly had; oftentimes the show seemed to be hosted by whoever happened to be hanging around the studio on a particular day.

A bigger problem for the show may have been the relative decline of teenpop. As the Backstreet Boys hit their thirties, 'N Sync split up and Britney got married and pregnant, no one of similar stature emerged to fill their dancing shoes. People like 50 Cent, Nickelback and Kelly Clarkson might have been willing to drop by the studio, but their music wasn't geared specifically to a teen audience and thus never provoked the same kind of audience frenzy. Finally, the advent of devices like the iPod, which was a gleam in Steve Jobs's eye when TRL debuted, made the entire idea of watching a video on TV seem as old-fashioned to today's teens as radio seemed to their parents -- the original MTV generation.

As ratings for TRL dropped, MTV's lack of interest in its health became hard to overlook. The channel was now defined by The Hills and non-musical reality programming generally. Music was even less important to MTV than it had been in 1998, and saving TRL simply wasn't a priority. MTV stopped airing a Friday episode, and by this year many hours were actually pre-taped. By the time the cancellation was announced in September, the reaction of many was surprise that TRL was still on the air.

Perhaps one day the wheel will come full circle, the fascination with the adventures of Lauren Conrad will end, and MTV will again show some interest in music. Until then, those looking for videos are advised to stick to the Web -- MTV's new, addictive video library site is a good starting point -- or to MTV Hits.

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