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Digital Media
R.I.P. For MTV's TRL?
Louis Hau, 02.15.07, 2:00 PM ET






The future of MTV's signature music video show, Total Request Live, looks precarious, illustrating the Viacom network's struggles to stay relevant in an increasingly Web-based media landscape.

Speculation inside MTV and at the major music labels has been mounting that TRL, a daily afternoon show that has been experiencing declining ratings, will soon be canceled or scaled back to two days a week. The newest fuel for the rumor mill: the fact that much of the staff at TRL's studio at New York City's Times Square was laid off late Tuesday, including members of the wardrobe, makeup and technical staff.

Their jobs were among the 250 that parent Viacom (nyse: VIA - news - people ) is eliminating at MTV Networks, which includes MTV, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon and other cable-TV channels. The job cuts are part of a restructuring effort to focus more resources on the company's digital properties.

MTV spokesman David Bittler denied that TRL was on the chopping block or that the network was considering scaling back the show.

TRL's ratings have declined since its heyday, but dropping the show would still be an important bit of symbolism for MTV. With reality-based shows making up most of the network's programming, TRL's weekday afternoon hour-long time slot remains one of the few opportunities for record labels to promote music acts.

But it's clear that TRL's days as an influential tastemaker are past. Launched in 1998 and originally hosted by Carson Daly, the program airs the 10 most popular videos as voted by viewers. Although the request format borrowed an old practice from pop radio, the "interactive" nature of the show made it stand out long before the term became an overused part of the media lexicon.

Particularly in its early years, the show was also a place where pop stars such as Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, the Backstreet Boys and N'Sync could drop by. MTV's decision to broadcast the show from a windowed studio in Times Square was a masterstroke, because it drew huge crowds of fans eager to catch a glimpse of their idols.

Spears, Simpson and the boy bands benefited from their exposure on TRL, and vice versa. According to Nielsen Media Research, the average audience for TRL's daily telecasts hit 853,000 in 1999 and remained strong at 778,000 in 2000 and 727,000 in 2001, roughly mirroring the peak in popularity of the teen pop acts.

But the show's ratings dropped 20% to 581,000 in 2002, then stayed steady at 601,000 to 609,000 for the next three years, which included a shift in its time slot from 3:30 p.m. Eastern to 5 p.m. Eastern.

TRL's average audience then contracted 23% last year to 468,000 when the show returned to its original 3:30 p.m. time slot. And the slide in ratings has continued into this year. During the first six weeks of 2007, TRL drew an average audience of 373,000, down another 15% from 440,000 during the same period last year.

An even bigger challenge for TRL than the decline of teen pop acts has been the fracturing of the teenage and college-aged audience that makes up most of its viewership.

They have scattered to other options, including cable channels Fuse and Music Choice, and especially social-networking sites like News Corp.'s (nyse: NWS - news - people ) MySpace and Facebook and other Web-based entertainment options, such as on-demand music videos at Yahoo! Music.

"They're representing a medium that's no longer as relevant to this generation as it was to previous generations,'' says Rich Hanley, assistant professor of interactive communications and director of graduate programs in the School of Communications at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. "If you're tied to any legacy media, you're naturally behind. I know [Viacom Chairman Sumner] Redstone says they're not, but clearly the fact that they're restructuring says they are."

Adding to the sense of turmoil was the firing this week of Paul DeBenedittis, MTV's executive vice president of multiplatform programming, content strategy and scheduling. DeBenedittis was given the post a year ago to "serve as the connective tissue that links both ecosystems" of short-form video and traditional TV programming, the network said in a statement at the time.

But his abrupt departure has spurred internal grumblings that he was being scapegoated for problems higher up the chain of command. Other MTV executives laid off this week included Salli Frattini, senior vice president and executive in charge of production; Kathy Flynn, senior vice president of production events; Carol Eng, senior vice president of MTV2 programming and production; and Eric Sherman, senior vice president and general manager of VH1 Classic.

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