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MTV, ‘TRL’ & When Betting on Nostalgia Goes Horribly Wrong

Music television didn't need a reboot, it needed a reset.

“MTV’s reinvention is coming by harnessing its heritage,” said company president Chris McCarthy in an interview with The New York Times this past July. The profile provided insight on McCarthy's belief in legacy revival―revamping the old with hopes of leading the network back to the golden glory of yesteryear.

Heritage—at least in this instance―means rebooting a late-‘90s-to-mid-'00s cultural gamechanger like TRL with the intention to reclaim what MTV had long lost: its position of power in music culture. The series is one of MTV’s most successful, at one point the center of after-school society for the babies born in the generation predating the internet boom. Somewhere between teenage mother reality shows, countless versions of The Real World, and Diddy’s band-making, the channel withered into a shell of itself and no longer provided music television. No longer speaking to or for the millennial zeitgeist.

Reinvention was overdue, a new flagship was needed. Nineteen years after its premiere and nine years after its departure, TRL recently set sail once again to ride the winds of youth culture and the waves of music programming. Every interview leading up to the show's premiere insisted on a burst of nostalgia brought on by memories of the Carson Daly era, but with a modern awareness of social media.

As former MTV VJ Damien Fahey put it in an excellent TRL retrospective written by Rob Harvilla on The Ringer: “I think there’s something in us that wants to be a part of something everyone else is into. Music is so fragmented now, there’s no one central hub to go to be like, ‘Oh, this is cool, this is cool.'" TRL's mission was to be this hub for one hour every Monday-Friday with celebrity guests, young and fairly famous co-hosts, and a studio audience—all the old ingredients in a new year.  

Since the October 2 premiere of the reboot, the critical consensus is that the show has been disastrous. From Pitchfork to USA Today, countless publications have chimed in on why what was promised to be a glorious return is everything but. It may be called TRL, but this isn’t the show people remember.

The nostalgia exists only in name, but not the execution. Even if Carson Daly returned and *NSYNC sang a medley of hits on the first episode, ratings were bound to plummet. Not every time capsule is meant to be dug up, not every great moment from the past has a place in the present―TRL was never going to work in a world where YouTube, Twitter, and free WiFi exist.

Everyone knew that. Well, everyone but MTV.

The problem with Fahey’s belief, that there was a need for a central hub, assumes the internet didn't already create an unbreakable connection for each and every one of us. Fahey truly believes, “There’s not that one place where we can all go to, to gather round and root for your boy bands, or your rock bands, pop stars, things like that.” This is a preposterous position in a world where Blonded Radio causes thousands to gather around a Frank Ocean playlist. Award shows aren’t watched alone, but as a community on social media. Even the biggest albums have become social media moments of togetherness.

We are constantly gathering for the biggest moments in pop culture, the kind of moments TRL used to create. Thinking of TRL as the gathering grounds completely overlooks the new frontier of social commentary that has existed since the dawn of YouTube and MySpace. The target audience of new teenagers and young adults can barely fathom life without DVRs. Selling them a cultural hub on television is like trying to convince an aspiring writer his or her next novel must be written on a typewriter.



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Music television is dead in 2017. Even late-night performances are mostly watched on YouTube the following day, not in the midnight hours when they air. It’s not just TRL being a poorly constructed series that holds back the reboot but selling a product without any demand. Nostalgia is supposed to be an easy sell—providing something familiar is much easier than attempting to promote something new. But it doesn’t work when there’s no void to fill, no request for resurrection.

Nickelodeon recently announced that three old NickToons will be receiving modern-day specials: Hey Arnold!, Rocko’s Modern Life, and Invader Zim. The anticipation surrounding these three specials is much higher than the energy leading up to TRL’s reboot. Of course, music television and classic animated series are two different entities, but the driving cause of hype remains the same: nostalgia. We know Hey Arnold! like we know TRL, except fans wanted the story of Arnold and his friends to continue. We know and love these characters, we grew up with them, and no amount of years can go by where we feel as if there’s no need for their return, no matter how brief.

TRL doesn’t exist in a world where continuation is warranted as it was only the vehicle for what and who we love. The hosts we love aren't returning, and the performers and artists we love are available 24/7 on Instagram Live and Snapchat. Fans don’t need to tune in at 5 p.m. like we used to because the show doesn't provide access that we can't get in various (and more convenient) formats. 

Music television didn't need a reboot, it needed a reset. It needed a new, refreshing outlook that didn't actually require sitting in front of your TV every day for an hour.

TRL wasn’t ahead of its time, but right on time. It fell upon the pulse of a generation becoming aware of its cultural heartbeat. The sensation that followed was created by becoming the foundation for celebrity culture to be built upon. The Beatles didn’t have MTV, but Britney Spears and Mariah Carey did. There was sudden access to the inaccessible, a space that closed the gap between Earth and Mount Olympus. Now, we have that access, and we get it elsewhere.

In his interview with The FADER, TRL showrunner Albert Lewitinn talked about how TRL is meant to be on the pulse of youth culture, but having the series air through syndicated television doesn't seem to be the best way to reach the youth who spend their waking hours in front of iPads and iPhones. 

TRL has a YouTube channel, uploading the content from their daily episodes, but the average view count is minuscule. The content isn't being viewed as it airs and isn't being watched after; the interest just doesn't exist. This is a sign. The new generation isn't interested in what worked 20 years ago. If MTV really wants to produce a series for the youth it needs a modern idea distributed on a modern platform. Complex's Everyday Struggle wouldn't be a success if it was aired every day on VH1. No one would watch. Even though the show is published at the same time every day, YouTube can be accessed anywhere. Complex knew the success of the series would be based on its interaction with an online audience, not a live one. 

Music television changed when music consumption evolved, and yet MTV's flagship series isn't Apple Music, TIDAL, or Spotify—the places where young fans are consuming music. We may love Rap City, but it wouldn't succeed on BET even if Big Tigger returned to the basement. If streaming is the future and more video content is being filtered through these platforms, a giant like MTV should be spearheading the charge instead of wishing life back into a dead corpse. 

It's possible to lean upon nostalgia, but simply going through the old motions without offering anything new is a recipe for failure. Where Nickelodeon is building upon legacy, MTV is betting on legacy. It's a fool's bet.

TRL is going to continue to struggle. The sooner they realize this isn't working, the sooner they can attempt to step forward instead of falling further behind.

By Yoh, aka YohMTVraps, aka @Yoh31



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