Not long ago, New York's Times Square meant one thing for teenage tourists: a chance to see Carson Daly on Total Request Live, the megahit show that made a second generation chant those words that were music to executives' ears: "I want my MTV." Daly sat in a window-lit studio, one story above the sidewalk of Times Square and talked to music celebrities like Britney Spears or Justin Timberlake, before cutting to a Papa Roach video, or more likely, a commercial break. It was the epitome of New York tourism (forget the Statue of Liberty). But more significantly, the show made MTV cool again for a new, younger audience.
As videos have migrated to YouTube, even daytime TV has switched over to reality television, and those windows—the ones that kids would practically scale the building to reach—have gone dark. Surprisingly, that's MTV's own doing: the set is now home to It's On With Alexa Chung, the network's latest entry into the live-television realm, coming a year after TRL was canceled. This summer, Alexa's show played for an hour each day. But starting Monday, it will enter the afterschool block, with a half-hour format and another visual makeover (more wood, less whimsy). The show's host, Alexa Chung, is a 25-year-old model from England, whose looks are a bit edgier than the crisp clean Carson Daly. But her vocabulary beats out Daly's (and there's no mistaking that posh British accent). She also seems to like Urban Outfitters, at least judging from her set. Twee details like wingback chairs are targeted to 15-year-old girls who dream about their first apartment, if they had a TV executive's decorating budget.
The network is commiting all this attention because, to the long-standing executives (many of whom worked on TRL), Alexa is the apothesis of cool, the woman they hope will amp up their teetering daytime lineup. For nearly a decade, MTV has lacked an after-school hit, and it's something they're hoping Chung can regain. "It'd be great to be able to break through all the pretaped stuff," says the network's programming director, Tony DiSanto. "Live television is a piece of the puzzle that's been missing, and it's important to have it there because the host ends up becoming the voice of our brand." During MTVs heyday, there was no shortage of these voices in their famous VJs—Kurt Loder, Matt Pinfield, SuChin Pak—but now MTV only has Lauren Conrad (oh wait, she just quit). Shows like The Hills and The City continue to top Tuesday-night ratings, while the network as a whole has fallen into daytime disrepair: this quarter, the network is launching what they call an "agressive lineup," including made-for-TV movies, in hopes that teens will latch on to one or two surprising hits.
But will Alexa be one of those hits? As an outsider to America, she's spent the summer becoming the ambassador of celebrity culture and the woman charged with introducing tweens to all their favorite stars. As a result, her American accent has become pretty great. She switches between her native accent and another that's pure California, the sort that's straight out of Clueless without the Valley Girl stupidity. In its place, however, is a smart-girl's acidity that would intimidate any insecure teenager. When describing American celebrities, she has a few pet peeves: "There's less bulls--t over [in England]," she tells me, before mocking all the silly Americanisms that she hears on her show: "I feel really grateful. I'm so blessed. I really work on being humble," she intones, referencing a 15-year-old who appeared on her show. "That's such a f--king weird thing to say."
This is her first time living in the United States, and she at least looks like she's trying to assimilate. Chung's model frame is shrink-wrapped in gray skinny jeans, tough, intimidating black boots and a baggy striped top with the word AMERICA emblazoned across it in bloody (not British bloody, just real bloody) letters. At 8 a.m her barely-there makeup is applied and her quite-messy hair tousled to look hipster-cool (she lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the mecca for this sort of thing). "Please don't ever style me," she told the producers as a condition of her contract, and she's one of few television talk-show hosts who often wears her own clothes on set. It's a look that only a model can pull off—lucky her—and those boots make me scared to get within kicking range. Perhaps she feels the same way: "You don't need to stand over me like a hawk," she hisses at one point, even though she had called me over to watch her read a teleprompter.
When MTV was searching for a new face, they conducted a nationwide search, but executives say they couldn't find a single person in America who could carry on the TRL tradition. (Really? We hear that Paula Abdul is now available.) Tim Healy, an executive producer at the network, called up some friends in England and asked if there was anyone on their airwaves who could carry her own show. He was going through the list they sent, groaning occasionally, he says, until he came across Alexa. In the U.K., Chung has worked as a host on various music and fashion programs. It's not these programs she's known for; instead she's a bit like a well-behaved Lindsay Lohan, an it-girl famous for mixing a social life with style, the sort that's trailed by tabloids with her merry gang of musician man-candy. "I was always the one who went home early," she says, swilling from a vitamin tonic we're both drinking, "especially if I had a television program to host."
"Picking someone European wasn't strategic," Healy says. "In the past, we had a lot of hosts that were kind of like the prettiest girl in high school, but with Alexa, she's aspirational—and that's something we really wanted." In other words, she's the kind of host you imagine to have celebrity friends (already, she's dating the frontman of The Arctic Monkeys). For all the viewers sitting at home, Alexa is readibly reachable (or actually, Alexa's staff is) on Twitter. "We wanted to create a show that had content and was engaging," DiSanto, who developed the project says. "But even more so, we wanted to propel the person at the center of this show"—Alexa—"into stardom." Unsurprisingly, MTV has left Chung’s interviews available on YouTube, where you can access a host of awkward moments: when Vanessa Hudgens visited the set, the two laugh awkwardly about how awkward they are (yes, it's awkward). When Ashley Tisdale, another High School Musical hero, stops by, Chung asks her if she's ever put vinegar in her hair. "Nope," Tisdale replies, a little confused. "Just shampoo and conditioner."
The network is taking some pains to make this show, well, less painful. When it relaunches on Monday during the 3:30 p.m. after-school block, it's duration will be cut in half. To keep kids engaged, while their minds are racing fast as a Twitter feed, the host will often leave the set; in the first week, she'll travel to New York's Chelsea Piers to interview the equally ornery John Mayer. The executive producer of the show—Corin Nelson, the showhandler of E!'s buzzy Chelsea Lately Show—has moved back to Los Angeles, which means production is going in-house. For viewers, that equals even more exposure to Alexa, with camera angles that show the starlet behind the scenes during commercials, as she fusses with her outfits and has her makeup reapplied. Twitter and Facebook, as necessary, will become an even larger part of the daily lineup; a social-media ticker tape will display across the screen.
But if kids are sitting at their computers tweeting their way to the television, do they even need the television? By now, the Internet has become a major medium for watching all shows, which means that live television (especially at an hour when most kids are at soccer practice, anyway) is sort of a moot point. Unsurprisingly, one of the show's most popular features is a place for kids to find out how to create Alexa's outfits for less. On the day I visited, fans seemed to be at a loss: several frat boys were pulled from the street to fill up the audience, only to be thrown out after making crass comments and calling her "hot." I asked one legging-clad lady why she liked Alexa: "She's funny, I guess," she answered.
What's less funny is what happens if MTV's gamble doesn't work. "Alexa has great success in the U.K., but that doesn't mean you can pick up on American television where you left off across the pond," says Carson Daly, "It's hard to get teens to say, 'I'm on board; I'm going to expect this every day after school." Alexa herself was a little surprised by what she expected from MTV. "I assumed there would be more music," she admits. "And I didn't realize the demographic would be quite so young." Let's hope she's a fast learner. Otherwise, you can hear the punch lines already: It's off with Alexa Chung.