Laugh if you want, but Carson Daly may have started the social TV movement way back in 1998 with MTV's interactive call-in countdown show Total Request Live. Today, he hosts NBC's fiercely social singing competition The Voice. (In between, he has hosted NBC's late-late-night show Last Call with Carson Daly.) TRL and The Voice may feel miles apart on the music-show spectrum, but they've both contributed to the socialization of TV. We talked to Daly about his role in shaping TRL, adapting the Dutch formula for The Voice and the role of quality in social success.
TVGuide.com: Did TRL invent social TV?
I really think so. It was probably the earliest example of what we now consider social or interactive television — if you asked someone for another example, I think they'd be hard-pressed to find one. In 1997, 1998, producers and networks made television and you sat there and either you liked it or you didn't. There was no communication. There was what we called a "fourth wall" — you never got to be a part of the process. At MTV, we wanted to be cool, so we decided to say, "We want you to be a part of the process. This is your network. This is your space."
TVGuide.com: But when the show started, it wasn't interactive at all.
When I got to MTV, we were trying to come up with a concept for the show because Total Request wasn't really working. It was a show where I was alone at night, in a studio, reading a top 10. It was kind of a disaster. At the time, people were coming up to me on the street and would say "Hey, MTV!" -- they would call me MTV -- "Man, that video sucks. Why don't you play some more Korn?" I got so tired of hearing that, so I went back to the network and said, "Why don't we just do one hour and say, 'Here's our phone number. Here's this new thing called an electronic email address. We're going to give you control over everything we play, and that way if you don't like it — then blame yourself and blame your friends. Because you guys have sh---y taste.'" That's where it started. That was one of the first times we've seen, in entertainment, on this pop-culture scale, social media at work.
TVGuide.com: So fast-forward 14 years, and you're hosting The Voice — arguably one of the most social shows on the air. Is it at all reminiscent of the early days at TRL?
It is! I really feel like The Voice's core audience is Generation TRL. There's a really interesting correlation of the two. It's almost the adult version of TRL.
TVGuide.com: The Voice introduced new elements, like integrating on-screen hashtags, the Social Media Room, a tweet scroll at the bottom of the screen, being able to tweet at the judges. What kind of team was behind putting it all in place?
In fairness, the real answer is this was a format that was already working in Holland. The Dutch version of The Voice really embraced the whole social aspect. Months in advance, we had a crew of people that figured out how to get the word out, how we were going to start letting people be part of the experience online. We begin each episode by saying, "Welcome to The Voice, the most socially and digitally integrated show on television." If you're gonna say that line, you really have to back it up.
TVGuide.com: How much do you think the social aspect played into the success of the show?
If the product's not good, it might have had that same digital imprint, but it could have been negative. Just because people are interacting and you're trending on Twitter, that doesn't necessarily mean you're going to be big. The VMAs had their best numbers in 10 years, but most people online were kinda like, "This show sucks." It was a high school train wreck. We feel like The Voice is a good show, and if the product is really good, people will find it and talk about it. And they did. I also think one of the reasons this show is so successful is because we take it very seriously — we're not Idol, we're not The Gong Show. We don't think there's anything funny about a young person trying to make it in the music business.
TVGuide.com: Do you think this is all just a trend or does it have staying power?
I think it's the way of the future. I think the masses will start to dictate plots. There might even be alternate endings to films or TV shows one day. Social media is great because if something is good, people will watch it, and then they'll tell other people virally. This happened when Mad Men first started on AMC. Now it doesn't even matter where you land or what network you're on, because if people like you, the word will get around. In television now, using social media is the key to success.