How the Original Total Request Live Created the Boy-Band Boom, Saved MTV (for a While), and Filled Midtown With Screaming Teenagers

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When MTV debuted a video-countdown show called Total Request Live on September 14, 1998, the cable network was in the throes of an identity crisis — a perpetual state for the flailing company in recent years but only a recurring one back then.

The problem, as it tended to be, was with music videos, which were synonymous with MTV but were no longer engaging its young audience the way they once had. Tom Freston and Judy McGrath, who ran the network and had been there since Neil Armstrong planted an MTV flag on the moon in 1981, had weathered this storm before through one programming sleight of hand after another, either by grouping videos into genre-specific blocks that platformed metal or rap or alternative rock, or by presenting an animated series in which two teenage dirtbags named Beavis and Butt-Head deconstructed videos, or by ghosting videos altogether and green-lighting the first reality-TV show, The Real World.

Typically, a new artist or sound would come along and make music videos, as happened with gangsta rap and grunge in the early ’90s, and the network would become relevant again. But when production executive Bob Kusbit came to MTV in ’97, in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide and Michael Jackson’s child-abuse scandal, popular music lacked a signature star or scene. The network’s marquee attraction was neither a musician nor even a housemate with boundary issues, but ex–Playboy centerfold Jenny McCarthy, who co-hosted a dating show. And she bolted MTV later that year.

“It was a real down period,” recounts Kusbit. “Everyone was trying to figure out what MTV should be.” When a bank vacated its offices at 1515 Broadway, where MTV was headquartered, the network took possession and built a studio. The new programming mandate was “live,” and the space featured floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Times Square. “The ceiling was too low, the glass wasn’t bulletproof, and the space was noisy, but we just blew through all of that in the interest of that great window,” says McGrath. But MTV didn’t know what to do with their new toy. They broadcast a lifeless daytime program called MTV Live, minus a studio audience and with a rotating cast of VJs, including a genial new hire plucked from L.A. rock radio named Carson Daly. Daly would host a variety of pop-up shows in the spring and summer of ’98, from empty studios and from sticky beach houses, most revolving around countdowns of the day’s most requested videos. “Some of our roots were in top 40 radio, things like countdowns,” says McGrath. With those dial-in shows, “we were grasping at early technology, but it was a way to try to get fans more involved.”

For their fall programming slate, Kusbit proposed merging two of the summer experiments — Total Request and The Carson Daly Show — into one hour-long countdown show, to be broadcast live from the new studio at 3:30 p.m., when kids would be returning home from school. “There was no genius to it,” he says. “When we started TRL it was just Carson, the camera guys, and a floor director. There wasn’t a studio audience. And we never thought about people showing up to Times Square.”

The Christmas prior, the romantic blockbuster Titanic had become the most successful movie in history, thanks in large part to the tween and teenage girls who couldn’t get enough of Leo and Kate’s watery love story and who would see the film as many times as their parents, and allowances, could bear. Those same girls were also latching onto a talented song-and-dance group from Orlando, Florida, called the Backstreet Boys, who, when they signed to Jive Records, were forced to barnstorm Europe while waiting for the American market to shift away from grunge and hard-core hip-hop. “We spent so much time over there that we ended up dating German girls,” says Backstreet Boy Howie Dorough. “We called America ‘No-Fan-Land.’”

But Jive’s South African–born founder Clive Calder, who would also preside over (and monumentally profit from) the careers of teen pop superstars Britney Spears and ‘N Sync, saw a steamship-sized gap in the marketplace: By 1998, adolescent girls were spending $60 billion annually. Rolling Stone saw fit to embed a reporter in a Connecticut suburb for an 8,000-word explainer called “The Secret Life of Teenage Girls,” as if high-school-age boy-band fans were a lost tribe of the Amazon. Barry Weiss, then president of Jive, recalls Calder coming back to the New York office after one his many jaunts abroad. “He said, ‘When I was at the airport in Geneva, the teen magazines all have boy bands and pop stars on the cover. But when I come through JFK, the covers of those magazines all have actors.’ He thought American record companies were snobbish, and they weren’t into pop music because they were too cool for school. We weren’t snobs, we were entrepreneurs. We thought the coolest thing was green, was cash. What’s not cool about making money?”

And thus, on TRL’s first-ever countdown, the show’s cultural identity would be permanently forged, when Backstreet’s “I’ll Never Break Your Heart” and ‘N Sync’s “Tearin’ Up My Heart” came in at Nos. 1 and 2. “MTV had to play the video because the fans wanted it,” says Backstreet’s AJ McLean, recalling that the network barely aired their earlier video “Quit Playing Games With My Heart.” “A bunch of guys in linen shirts dancing in the rain showing off their abs?” laughs McLean of the clip. “Wasn’t gonna happen. But once the fans banded together and forced MTV’s hand, they didn’t have a choice.” Backstreet, ‘N Sync, Britney, and Christina Aguilera videos became so dominant that producers invented a rule whereby videos that spent 65 days at No. 1 were “retired,” in order to allow other acts, and their fan armies, to taste victory.

Those young female devotees — daughters of Beatlemaniacs, future moms to Beliebers — became the heart (there’s that word again) of TRL. “Girls were able to see themselves as the authors of culture,” explains Gayle Wald, professor of English and American Studies at George Washington University. “They were pulling all the strings. The show became this really fun excuse for them to display their consumer power.”

While the show ostensibly revolved around the music-video countdown — YouTube was still years away — the real reason to tune in quickly became the dizzying, empowering spectacle of the female fans themselves. “The second week,” says Kusbit, “a girl showed up outside with a sign that says, ‘Hey Carson, Let Me Up.’ The third week, there were 30 kids out there.” At a company meeting at Gurney’s Inn in Montauk, Kusbit and TRL co-creator Tony DiSanto presented a new idea to their bosses. “We secretly shipped a bunch of kids to Gurney’s and had them line up outside these big windows, with the shades drawn,” says DiSanto. “We lifted the shades, and all of a sudden you saw all these kids with signs, screaming. Then we opened the doors and they all ran in. That was the way we told the network we wanted to start bringing kids into the studio. And that’s when TRL really started to take off.”

En masse, girls — and their moms, plus a smattering of fearless boys — would flock after school to the sidewalks outside 1515 Broadway, hoping to be whisked inside the studio, or for a wave from their crush, or to get picked to record a 15-second shout-out that would appear, screen-within-screen, during the airing of a music video, or to just bond with other superfans, take stock of their newfound clout, and scream for joy. “Imagine being in the world’s largest exotic bird shop,” says Dave Holmes, a VJ during the TRL reign, when asked to describe the sound made by the crowd. “There’s a weird, primal nature to it where they all hit the same very loud note at once. It’s almost like a mating call.”

Soon, TRL became a must-stop on every celebrity’s promotional itinerary. During a three-day span in May 1999, the Backstreet Boys shut down Times Square not once but twice, when they appeared first on a Sunday afternoon “Backstreet Boys Live” two-hour special, and then again on Tuesday’s TRL to launch their new album, Millennium. (Not coincidentally, Millennium would be the best-selling album of 1999, moving 9.5 million copies.) “The police came and asked us to lower the studio blinds because kids were backing up into traffic,” remembers Kusbit. “We all looked at each other in amazement.” “It was like a state of emergency out there,” says Dorough. Where typically a couple hundred kids might amass after school on the sidewalks, “5,000 kids showed up. It was mayhem. We couldn’t have gone down to the street if we wanted to. But for me, it was flattering. What guy wouldn’t want a bunch of screaming girls?”

Not everyone was comfortable reckoning with the show’s demographic. “A lot of celebrities were terrified of coming on TRL,” says Tim Healy, the show’s head writer. “They were fine with Letterman or Conan because that was an adult audience, but they found TRL a challenge. I remember Mel Gibson rolling in, and he was not in the mood to be there. One of the recurring bits we did was having guests draw a self-portrait. And after his appearance — and it was an unnerving appearance — I looked at his drawing. It was terrifying, and in bold letters he’d written, ‘I offer you my decrepit soul.’”

Scenes of pandemonium became commonplace, but Healy says that few guests could remain unaffected by the intensity of the moment. “Eminem came on, and he was so moved by the number of people out there that he was brought to tears. That was a weird moment for me. Eminem was an edgy guy. I was like, dude, Marshall is crying.”

TRL wasn’t all fidelity-pledging boy bands and bubblegum ingenues proffering impeccably written and produced Max Martin songs (would that it were). Musical acts of all denominations, with the exception of anything vaguely alt-hipster, got love on TRL, especially the aggro antidote to teen-pop gush: rap-rock, from Limp Bizkit and Korn in particular, often dueled with Jive’s holy trinity for glory at the top of the countdown. “We always called the third spot on the countdown ‘the Korn spot’ because they could never get past number three,” says Kusbit. In fact, Korn had four videos “retired” from TRL, and Limp Bizkit six. “It was like professional wrestling,” says Healy of the warring tribes. “The heels versus the baby faces.” R&B and hip-hop stars also figured prominently, albeit rarely collecting the most votes from the predominantly white viewership. When Saturday Night Live satirized TRL, while Jimmy Fallon mocked the host (“I’m Carson Daly and I’m a big tool”), Maya Rudolph and Ana Gasteyer played two-thirds of Gemini’s Twin, an R&B group modeled after frequent TRL guests Destiny’s Child.

At its peak, TRL crossed the star-making machinery of American Bandstand with the psychosexual erotics of Twilight. In 1999, at the zenith of the teen-pop boom, the show averaged 853,000 viewers, according to Nielsen, and helped establish tween and teen girls as not just a flush consumer group, but one whose aesthetic choices had just as much value and integrity as their broseph counterparts (this came to be called “poptimism” in music-critic circles). And via its windowed stage set, TRL sold a vision of a G-rated Times Square that brought middle-American parents and their BSB-adoring kids on pilgrimages to the MTV studio. “We loved our city and wanted it to look great to the rest of the world,” says McGrath.

The original TRL enjoyed a ten-year run, but, bound to the teen-pop boom, it pretty much peaked in 1999. Viewership would decline more or less every year thereafter, until MTV finally pulled the plug, after 2,247 episodes, in November 2008. Daly left in 2003, and now hosts the musical talent show The Voice, which, like its antecedent American Idol, utilizes the “fans pick the winner” model institutionalized by TRL. And the existential dilemma regarding music videos that nagged at MTV execs in the ’90s seems quaint today, as millennials have all but abandoned or ignored the network’s programming during the past decade.

Seemingly out of ideas, MTV has opted to hit the rewind button, dialing up a new version of NBC’s gross-out game show Fear Factor, a Laguna Beach simulacrum called Siesta Key, and, most fraught of all, a reboot of TRL, now largely absent videos and requests, but still with bracingly upbeat hosts, a vista of Times Square, and teens who squeal on cue. Critics have not been kind to the sequel, but with a new album coming by year’s end, the Backstreet Boys, some now with TRL-aged kids of their own, have their sights set on a triumphant return to the show, and perhaps to 1999. “With the right song, I think we could actually re-create that moment,” declares AJ McLean. “Who knows? Maybe even bigger!”

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How TRL Created the Boy-Band Boom and Saved MTV (for a Bit)