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Britney Spears found early fame in "Total" eclipse

MTV’s “Total Request Live” is interactive hitmaking at a fever pitch. And as viewers call in, the stars come calling.

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It’s the Friday before the release of the Gulf War adventure Three Kings, and even though hunky costar Mark Wahlberg is standing in the flesh just steps away, the studio audience watching the daily MTV show Total Request Live seem about as interested in the actor as they are in their homework. Instead, as the program’s host, Carson Daly, tosses to an interview clip of 98 Degrees singer Nick Lachey talking about his group’s hit ”I Do (Cherish You),” the mostly female teenage crowd squeals uncontrollably at the monitors. Off camera, Daly rolls his eyes and echoes them mockingly: ”Oh! Ooohhhh! He’s so hot!”

Where was this show when Wahlberg was Marky Mark?

Over the past year, Total Request Live — or TRL, as it’s known among industryites and kids — has become the driving force in pop music. Elementary in format (Daly counts down the top 10 videos based on the previous day’s Net and call-in requests), the show has both capitalized on and fueled the favorites of the mall (Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, ‘N Sync) and the mosh pit (Korn, Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit) — many of whom TRL launched almost single-handedly. As Columbia Records video promotions senior VP Gary Fisher sums up: ”It’s one of the most important vehicles right now for getting new music to the right people” — those right people being the fickle yet disposable-income-laden 12- to 34-year-olds the show attracts in droves. Since its debut in September ’98, TRL’s ratings have more than doubled: Today, over one million fanatics tune in a day, a feat for any cable program, particularly one that airs at 3:30 in the afternoon.

”The show has become the franchise of the channel,” says MTV News head Dave Sirulnick, who helped hatch TRL as a combination of the network’s unsuccessful talk show MTV Live and its summer-’98 tape-delayed countdown, Total Request. After 10 months, the 60-minute show added an extra half hour to accommodate more world-premiere videos and celebrity visits.

As TRL has grown in length and popularity, it’s spawned countless success stories. ”Limp Bizkit had been around for a number of years,” says Sirulnick by way of example. ”They had a fan base that started voting [their George Michael cover] ‘Faith’ on our chart every day. Then the masses started voting for them and before you knew it, [Bizkit frontman] Fred Durst became a certified rock star.”

Jive Records president Barry Weiss, who’s overseen the development of the Backstreet Boys and — perhaps TRL’s biggest discovery — Britney Spears, pinpoints Spears’ takeoff a bit more specifically: ”Friday, Dec. 11, 1998. I was giving an A&R presentation, and in the middle of it, at 1 o’clock, we got news that Britney’s ‘…Baby One More Time’ video had made it on the Total Request Live countdown at No. 10,” he remembers. ”It was an earth-shattering moment. That was the confirmation. That was when I said, ‘We are off to the races.”’

The same could be said of the hordes of fans who crowd the pavement — hollering for their favorite Backstreet Boy, requesting videos on air, and creating traffic snarls in the already-crowded Times Square ‘hood — outside MTV’s Manhattan headquarters at 1515 Broadway each afternoon. ”We can hear the screaming and yelling every day, five days a week,” says RCA Records general manager Jack Rovner, whose office is across the street. ”If I had a decibel meter, I could tell you who’s really going to have the impact the following week on SoundScan.” In fact, since the TRL countdown reflects voting from 24 hours before, it often presages performance on the Billboard charts.

On the flip side, heavy rotation on TRL doesn’t guarantee boffo sales; just ask former New Kids On The Block and TRL staples Jordan Knight and Joey McIntyre, whose comeback albums peaked on the Billboard 200 at Nos. 29 and 49, respectively. Still, TRL is notable for providing a place where Christina Aguilera and Kid Rock can coexist peacefully. “It’s like the U.N. of music-video shows,” offers Daly, who’s become something of a TRL heartthrob himself. “Everybody has a place.”

Well, not everybody. Record labels are churning out far too much pop and rock product for TRL to handle. “We only have five days a week to premiere things,” says MTV music and talent VP Tom Calderone, who heads the network’s weekly music meetings, in which an approximately 20-person committee decides which videos will make the cut. And though the labels may lobby hard for airtime (“It’s very precious real estate and everybody’s vying for it,” says Weiss; “We fight every day to get our stuff on there,” says Fisher), many seemingly TRL-friendly acts, teen popsters like Epic’s Mandy Moore or Warner Bros.’ Michael Fredo, have yet to be granted TRL world premieres. Not that they should send the network gift baskets to help their cause. “There’s no way to schmooze,” remarks Calderone. “The only schmoozing you can do is what you put on the screen.”

If there’s an implicit challenge in those words, MTV faces its own in keeping TRL relevant when, as some bizzers predict, bubblegum acts like Britney and the Backstreet Boys give way to rock & roll again. “We’re in a period where we have a very active audience that reacts immediately to the exposure of new music,” says RCA’s Rovner. “Rock music takes longer.” So what does that mean for Carson and Co.? Daly’s undaunted. “Everybody’s talking about how there’s going to be a big resurgence in rock,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what happens within music. This show has the bare bones to support it.”