Evan Serpick
August 16, 2002 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Scores of preteens shriek and swoon as pop heartthrob Mario heads into a midtown TV studio. The singer is there for a brief chat with the show’s host, who then breathlessly reels off the top 10 most-requested videos of the day. All the while, a giddy, manic audience offers unconditional squeals of approval.

If you’re looking for Carson Daly, prepare for a letdown: This isn’t TRL. It’s BET’s 106 & Park, and cohosts AJ and Free trump Carson’s Nielsen numbers daily. Park (airing weeknights at 6) has grown quietly since its September 2000 debut and now not only tops its MTV counterpart but also has helped launch the careers of hip-hop and R&B new jacks like Bow Wow (right) and B2K. Currently a stalwart presence in the urban-music industry, Park is appointment TV for labels looking to break new acts.

”It’s in our mission statement,” says Kevin Liles, president of Def Jam, home to Ashanti and Ludacris. ”There are five things you need to do to be successful: Sign a superstar with a great image, have a great first single, get great word of mouth, get them on the radio, and get them on 106 & Park. Those things start projects.”

At the same time, Park has single-handedly reinvigorated the adolescent-pop-R&B genre made famous by artists like the Jackson 5 and New Edition. ”One of the things that fueled 106 & Park was the absolute dearth of [urban] artists that 14- to 16-year-old girls could lose their minds over,” says BET VP of music programming Stephen Hill. ”It was just one of those obvious holes. You’ve got credible hip-hop, you’ve got adult hip-hop, you don’t have that New Edition group. 106 & Park was intended to be the perfect vehicle.”

And it’s driving acts up the charts: Virtually every recent successful R&B and hip-hop rookie with pop appeal got their start on 106 & Park (which recently moved downtown from its titular East Harlem studio). Artists including Alicia Keys, B2K, and Ashanti debuted their videos on the show and went on to shock unaware industry insiders with massive opening-week record sales. Just last month the eponymous debut album from Park project Mario (who only cracked the TRL countdown after weeks on Park) landed at No. 9 on the Billboard albums chart, selling 91,000 copies its first week.

”The impact of the show has been amazing on so many artists’ careers,” says Park’s AJ, whose public appearances inspire as much adolescent fanfare as the guests. ”There hasn’t been a lot of room in pop for the hip-hop and R&B flavor.”

BET’s upstart countdown is also rocking MTV’s world. So far this season, 106 & Park leads TRL in total households (708,000 vs. 599,000), leaving TRL producers scrambling to book such 106 & Park faves as Bow Wow (who appeared on TRL June 27) and Mario (who dropped by July 2).

”It’s not like Leno and Letterman or something like that,” TRL host Daly says of the competition. ”We’ve never really acknowledged it as far as altering anything we’ve done on TRL.”

You May Like