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MTV President Chris McCarthy Talks ‘TRL’ Relaunch and His Vision for the Network

When MTV announced in July that it is reviving “TRL,” the once-blockbuster afternoon franchise that the network shuttered in 2008, it wasn’t exactly met with a chorus of hosannas. While new-ish president Chris McCarthy has done a solid job of shaking off the network’s substantial cobwebs since he took the helm last year — a rep says August was MTV’s third consecutive month of year-over-year growth, the first time that’s happened in six years — retooling a mothballed franchise for a young audience for whom the name probably has little relevance doesn’t at first seem like a slam dunk.

But in advance of the show’s launch on Monday — from its iconic, expanded studios above Times Square — damned if McCarthy doesn’t sound like he’s onto something. Rather than focusing on what the show was, he’s looking at the contemporary potential of its model: a live and lively, youth-oriented daily television show with the ability to address trends, events, memes, and news in real time.

The show clearly has a big buy-in from the music industry — its first week of guests include Ed Sheeran, Migos, Noah Cyrus, Lil Yachty, Playboi Carti, Prettymuch, Demi Lovato, Lil Uzi Vert and the just-announced Romeo Santos and Travis Scott — and will be hosted by D.C Young Fly and fellow social-media stars Tamara Dhia, Amy Pham, Erik Zachary and Lawrence Jackson, along with content creators Liza Koshy and the Dolan Twins and Eva Gutowski, Gabbie Hanna and Gigi Gorgeous as social media correspondents.

According to a press release, the show “will integrate linear, social and digital elements and bring teen passion points to life, while continuing to incorporate audience requests.” Clips from the main show will be immediately distributed to social media, supplemented by original digital segments, short-form social videos and blog posts. Also, there will be an official “TRL” show on Musical.ly, airing on Mondays and Thursdays.

How will it all work? Find out for yourself on Monday — “TRL” will air every weekday at 3:30 p.m. ET.

Your target audience was too young to have grown up with “TRL” or really know what it meant. How does this reboot make sense in that context?
The brand itself is so much bigger than one element; for us to launch anything successful, it needs to be in the cultural zeitgeist, whether it’s a brand-new show or a relaunched “TRL.” The artists love it and the [music] community is incredibly excited to make it happen and are just dying to get on the show.

Is your goal the same as that of the original show, to be a live after-school destination?
Exactly. And essentially it’s going to be our place that, whether you’re watching on TV or on your phone or on Facebook, it doesn’t matter where you’re checking in. This is going to be some of the first content that hits your feed or that you come home to.

In other interviews you said you’re looking to expand to 2-3 hours of live TV per day. What else would be in those hours?
We’re aiming to build up to that over the next couple of years. It’s like if “TRL” could be an hour long, what’s the next show behind it? And we’re also looking at bookending live in the afternoon and live in primetime.

What’s the new “TRL” going to be like?
When you look at the original series, it was social media before social media — it was about those moments that would go viral. Certainly it’s about the latest and greatest music, but also it’s about the way that most content has become much more comedic. It’s going to have much more of a fun personality. If you look at a young person’s feed, it’s so colorful, it’s got all kinds of genres and excitement, that’s the energy that’s going to be in the show every day. And we’re certainly going to count down what’s trending up and what’s trending down — what we request more of, and what we didn’t request!

The first show will have Ed Sheeran and Migos — is that the sort of demographic spread you’re looking for when booking music artists?
It’s as wide a representation, yes. For even the first week, when you look at it overall, it’s probably a good sample of what we’re looking for: Migos and Ed but also Playboi Carti, Noah Cyrus, Lil Uzi Vert, Demi Lovato — really a broad, wide spectrum. That’s gonna be the fun — you get superstars like Ed and a mix of the up-and-coming and artists like Lil Uzi who are already huge to their audience but others haven’t heard yet.

And also, we have a whole other set of stars — musicians are incredibly important, but also massively important to young people are the social-influencer stars. When you ask how we would get up to more than a few hours, we’re going to do it through a unique, very youth-culture-focused filter, and we’re going to create it in a way that isn’t just about TV — it’s really about every device that they’re on, and for every screen.

The great thing about “TRL” is that it’s an experiment every day. In the original show, the actual countdown was rather minimal in terms of the content of the show. It was about creating moments and experiences. We’re not gonna measure the success of the show in terms of daily linear ratings; we’re measuring it based on how big of an impact it has on culture. Young people request all day, every day on their phones, whether it’s liking something or requesting a friend, that vernacular is so much in their world, so the words “Total Request Live” couldn’t be more relevant.

And the fact that you’re live every weekday is a rare opportunity to showcase rising viral hits early.
Totally! And we will be the ones who are helping to blow that up and amplify it.

It feels like the show is part of a larger strategy to return music to MTV.
Bringing music back into the channel has been critical to everything new that we’re adding and bringing in, so when you look at something like “Siesta Key,” which we launched over the summer, it reminds you of slightly of “The Hills” but with a whole new millennial sort of Gen-Z sensibility — music is one of the characters in the show.  The [music] beds are told in a very different way that we haven’t done in awhile. It really is an experience from a music perspective — to something as simple as changing out the filter for “Fear Factor” and bringing in Ludacris and bringing a music texture to the show. I think watching someone perform in a series of specials or playing music videos probably is not gonna be — and hasn’t for years been — something that audience is necessarily looking for. They can find it online, and we have four other channels that just air music videos.

You turned around MTV2 in a difficult time. What in particular worked there?
Back then it was about the emerging of millennials, and something that hasn’t been talked about but was really clear is that race was their issue of choice. Also, it was always a comedic channel, but we changed the tone of the comedy. Before, some of it was an opposition-based comedy, but millennials were into much more celebratory comedy, and we did it from a very multi-cultural perspective. Everything became naturally fast-paced, punchline-punchline-punchline, and a celebration. We needed to make a change from Generation x to millennials, at MTV we’re making another shift, from millennials to Gen Z, and “TRL” makes that really exciting.

Do you intend to bring more race-based issues and “real” issues to “TRL” and to MTV?
Absolutely, just like we did with the VMAs and the Movie Awards — we integrated that organically. Pro-social is a huge piece of the show, we’ll be addressing the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), issue, tuition, Puerto Rico — that’s the great thing about being live, it allows us to be in the culture live, in real time, and help to actually raise awareness about some of these incredibly important issues.

How does that relate to the recent shift in MTV News, which has gone from long-form writing to “pivoting to video”?
If there’s any one misunderstanding that some people have of the shift we made in news — it’s that not that we’re not doing it, it’s incredibly important, as is written content. They’re both still really important to us. But that [long-form] experiment last year was about creating 6,000-word essays — which I love, I read The Atlantic and The Economist and I love them. But that’s not necessarily what people want from MTV, and that’s not what young people are looking for or the best way to reach them with the issues. So in many ways we’re going back to the future, with great stories that are short and get the point across.

You’ve had success with Logo, MTV2, VH1, what have you learned from those experiences that you’re bringing to MTV?
Don’t take anything for granted! Everything is an opportunity and nothing is an obligation.

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