Friedman Out as MTV President, Sean Atkins In

Stephen Friedman has stepped down as president of Viacom's MTV with Discovery exec Sean Atkins (pictured) succeeding Friedman.

In a memo to staff, Viacom Networks Group head Doug Herzog said Friedman gave notice in April "but stayed on to help with the transition as we brought MTV and Logo into the new Music and Entertainment Group. I'm grateful for that, because his timing also gave me a beat to conduct a thorough, thoughtful search for the new President of MTV."

Under Friedman, MTV launched shows including Teen Mom, Catfish and Jersey Shore. More recently he pushed the network into scripted series with Teen Wolf, Awkward and Scream.

But MTV's ratings have largely declined, leading to questions about whether the network was connecting to young viewers and whether the network's young viewers were being adequately counted by current TV audience measurement systems.

"I personally directed the search for the new President of MTV, and spoke to so many smart, accomplished people of varying backgrounds who'd love nothing more than to sit in that chair," Herzog said. "I can tell you firsthand that, throughout our industry, there is a deep admiration for the power of MTV and the enormity and cultural impact of what you do."

Atkins joins MTV from Discovery Communications, where he most recently served as general manager and executive VP, digital media and strategy. He's also had stints at HBO and Yahoo.

“Sean is smart, creative, passionate, and remarkably energized about the sea change at hand in our industry,” said Herzog, in a statement that was released later Wednesday. “The strength of MTV lies in its ability to constantly reinvent, and Sean’s forward-thinking, versatile leadership will ensure our brand and business continue to evolve and deliver for our audience.”

Viacom has shaken up management as its ad sales have shrunk and it faces a blackout of its networks by Dish Network later this year.

Earlier this year, MTV veteran Van Toffler left, leading to an executive restructuring that put Herzog in charge of Viacom's music and entertainment networks and Cyma Zarghami in charge of the Nickelodeon brand.

The company also restructured, resulting in layoffs and a $785 million charge against earnings.

As for Friedman, "Stephen joined MTV in 1998 to create its Public Affairs team and ultimately rose to run the entire business," Herzog said. "That's a pretty unique career path and it says a lot - not only about Stephen, but about how talented people can grow and contribute beyond their scope at this company." Friedman plans to return to the social impact and mission driven business, Herzog said.

In a goodbye memo, Friedman said: "My next adventure will be focused full time on giving back, on social impact, and on applying what I've learned from MTV about the power of brands and storytelling to create positive change."

Below is the text of Friedman's memo to staff:

Subject: Thank you

I'm going to start this with a quote from an Irish poet.  Not Bono, much as I admire him.  Not Niall Horan, much as I respect his ability to boost ratings.  I'm going to quote the great Seamus Heaney.  In his poem "The Swing," Heaney describes a swing as "a lure let down to tempt the soul to rise."

I think it is a beautiful metaphor for aiming high, for following your calling.  After 18 years, including 7 at the helm of MTV, it reminds me of what originally inspired me to work here.  When I was hired to create the pro-social department, I was told, "Your job will be to use MTV's superpowers for good."

While I had personally experienced the cultural power of MTV, it wasn't until I started working here that I understood the true power behind the brand.  Those "superpowers" originate with you.   Each of you brings your own calling, your own desire to take risks and make new history.

That secret ingredient that supercharges the brand is your deeply held humanity.  It's woven into everything we do, even our craziest cultural moments.  Thanks to your passion and creativity, MTV has shown it is possible to be both outrageously entertaining and a force for positive change.

When "Jackass" was airing in all its glory, MTV, as part of a year-long anti-bias campaign, went dark for an entire day scrolling the names of thousands of hate crimes victims to call for a comprehensive hate crimes bill - which finally passed in 2009.

While "Jersey Shore" was at its height, we debuted "16 and Pregnant" and "Teen Mom."  Some mistook these cautionary tales as further sign of the apocalypse, but the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the shows helped drive a remarkable decrease in teen pregnancy.

When "Laguna Beach" reimagined reality TV, mtvU partnered with a brilliant USC grad student to develop "Darfur Is Dying" - one of the first viral games for change, which helped mobilize millions of young people to take action and raise awareness about the genocide in Darfur.

As Beyoncé, Taylor, Kanye and Nicki graced our air with world-class artistry and culture defining moments, our Look Different campaign has confronted bias in multiple ways - through "White People," "The T Word with Laverne Cox," and MLK IS NOW - which turned MTV black and white for the day to encourage our audience to move from "color blindness" to "color bravery."

Having been blessed to work with you and be part of this remarkable brand for the better part of my career, I am leaving to return full time to what tempts my soul to rise.
My next adventure will be focused full time on giving back, on social impact, and on applying what I've learned from MTV about the power of brands and storytelling to create positive change.

What MTV understood at its inception, a growing part of the world is now actively pursuing.  We're in the midst of a boom of mission driven companies that are redefining business while tackling some of the biggest social challenges we face.

Thank you for inspiring me and allowing me to be part of the extraordinary ride that is MTV.   I'll be around for the next few weeks wrapping up, and I hope to say goodbye to as many of you in person as I can. I will miss you.  Your passion, creativity, and personal callings have transformed each new MTV - and, in the process, transformed culture.  I will be rooting you on as you do it once again.

Jessika Walsten contributed to this report.

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.