Getting MTV Back Into the Groove

MTV — which celebrated its 35th anniversary on Aug. 1 — is looking to recapture the beat of its past by once again making music-themed content a staple of its programing schedule. The reinvention of the iconic network comes even as parent Viacom is racked with C-suite succession issues.

Network executive vice president of original programming Michael Klein has been tasked with developing new and original shows that appeal to MTV’s target demographic of millennials. He’ll seek to do that with series such as Wonderland, a live-music performance show, and Unlocking the Truth, a documentary series that follows prisoners who say they’ve been wrongly convicted as they fight for their freedom.

Klein charted out the network’s original programming strategy in a wide-ranging interview with Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead. An edited transcript follows.

MCN:What is your strategy for developing original programming for MTV?

Michael Klein: Music is our muse. We look at music as inspiration, celebrating artists that bring voice to the youth generation. We target 18-to-24-yearolds, but our sweet spot is 21. It’s all about the firsts in their lives — first job, first love, first meaningful breakup, first apartment — and capturing that energy and excitement around the responsibility of adulthood and the fear that also comes along with losing your youth. So you’ll see that across our content, whether it be in the case of Wonderland, straight-on music live every week on our air — the first time in 20 years — to documentary series like Unlocking the Truth.

MCN:Can you effectively mix music content with hard-hitting documentary content, or are you looking to reach a different audience with each genre?

MK: Look, millennials are so curious about the world. I think people often think of millennials as being passive and not engaged, but they are very engaged. They are getting slammed with content all day, every day on all platforms, so we want to tap into that insatiable curiosity and talk to them in a voice that’s authentic and relevant to them about subjects that they really care about.

MCN:A lot of MTV’s new content and stars come directly from the Internet. What’s the strategy behind cultivating content from the online world for the linear channel?

MK: What we really look for are people with a real strong point of view; it doesn’t matter where they come from. It they have a strong online following that’s terrific, but it’s really about finding people with a strong, authentic point of view that will connect and engage with our audience.

MCN:MTV recently rebranded VH1 Classic as MTV Classic, offering vintage MTV music videos and original series content from the 1990s and early 2000s. Was that decision made to reach the older end of the millennial age group that grew up with MTV?

MK: MTV Classic is really the brainchild of a number of people inside the company who knew there was a vault of this incredible content that represents a moment in time in youth culture. It still resonates so deeply not only with that audience, but with audiences today.

When I came to MTV, the first thing that happened was people were sending me lists of the shows they wanted to see brought back. We listened to the audience, and that’s what you’ll find on MTV Classics.

MCN:What is the biggest challenge for MTV in a very noisy and crowded marketplace?

MK: This is one of the most exciting times for content creators in history. There are more platforms and more audience demand than ever for content, and I find this terribly exciting. Every day I think, how can we develop something that can break through and cut through the clutter? I love that challenge, and we work really carefully with our internal teams and production partners on creating experiences that really go back to the MTV spirit of pioneering something, and bringing something that’s new and fresh that can really break through.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.