Skip to main content

Making Them Want Their MTV Again

MTV is going back to the future by returning to its music roots under president Sean Atkins. It’s slating several new music-infused shows, including Wonderland, its first live performance series in decades, with hopes of drawing in its target audience of millennials. Atkins, who joined the Viacom-owned network last September from a digital-media executive role at Discovery Communications, discussed his plans put the music back into MTV with Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead.

MTV:How do you define the MTV brand?

Sean Atkins: MTV is a brand that was born from the creative spirit of music, and what that really means is that you are of the pop culture; you’re doing the unexpected, because music is constantly evolving; you’re always relevant to youth, because music is a big part of them and how they evolve; and it makes you artist-oriented. That’s a lot of what we’re leaning into heavily.

In no uncertain terms does that mean that Sean is looking to bring back music videos — we are inspired by music, but we are not a video-music genre network.

MTV:How will the reintroduction of music affect the current status of the network’s lineup, which features mostly scripted series and reality content?

SA: I wish I had a magical time machine and psychic powers to answer that in perfect ratio. Ideally, in a perfect world, I would love to say every show would have an obvious music component. The question is what is the right measurement of how dead-on music programming we develop versus music-influenced programming versus programming that’s playing in pop culture.

I think the answer to that will be an always-moving thing. Obviously, as you’re turning around a network, you never abandon any hits. Ideally, when you tune in you’ll see the hits that have been holding the network up, but you’ll also see a lot of new shows on the air.

MCN:Given that most young people listen to and watch music on the Web, will MTV be fighting an uphill battle to get those viewers to tune into the network to watch music shows likeWonderland?

SA: I don’t think so. We’re taking a very experiential, multiplatform approach to it. Yes, music is on digital platforms, but I think what we’re doing with shows like Wonderland is providing viewers a chance to get discover new music and get that music in the context of what’s happening in pop culture. That’s the spin that we’re putting on it — to make it a linear relevance and then allowing viewers to participate socially as we put it out on a multiplatform basis.

MCN:MTV has also rebranded some of its other music-themed services — Palladia to MTV Live, for example. Will we continue to see a rebranding of other services?

SA: We have a five-network slate in the MTV family, and we are always looking at how we make those channels the most suitable to our audience and to our partners. The questions you should always ask yourself when you are a programmer is, is this a voice that’s resonating with our audience and is there a segment of the audience that we could better overserve, or is there something that we’re not doing for our audience?

I think MTV Live is the first version of that where it’s us putting the “M” back in MTV. There’s a segment of our audience that really wants live performance and documentaries, so we can superserve that audience with one of our networks versus just trying to make MTV the core brand to try and superserve all viewer niches.

MCN:How concerned are you about the trend of millennials watching less linear television as you look to build MTV’s linear audience?

SA: There’s no question that the demo that I speak to consumes more and more video content than ever before. The issue is a business structure problem, which is way out of my pay grade. The first and last question I begin and end the day with is, “Do I understand what my audience wants, and are we making great creative that gets them excited?” But I do run a large brand that has global ramifications, so we do, of course, think about the long-term ramifications of where the audience is going and think about platforms.

The blessing is that MTV is one of the most multiplatform brands that has been built in this business. We already had built before I got here a huge footprint of speaking to these audiences. The big brands that stand for things have a low probability of imploding and disappearing, but rather they’ll follow their audience and follow the business models. I don’t think that’s any different from what our long-term path is.

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.