Sean Atkins May Have The Hardest Job in TV

On the day of his first upfront presentation as MTV president in April, Sean Atkins stared at a colleague’s phone during rehearsal. TMZ had just broken the story: Prince was dead at age 57.

For Atkins, the former Discovery digital executive hired by MTV last September, the news hit home on a personal level. “It was just a gut punch,” says Atkins, 45, who remembers Prince’s 1984 album Purple Rain being one of the first he ever bought.

Professionally, the event was more daunting. TMZ, one of the many digital upstarts encroaching on MTV’s turf, had first-mover advantage on the story. Reaction and updates were ricocheting around social media before the 35-yearold MTV could assert its position. Backstage at NYC’s Moynihan Station, Atkins huddled with colleagues. The upfront script would have to be rewritten, the party playlist remixed and linear programming overhauled in tribute to Prince. Big-picture, the task was much larger: how to get MTV back into the pop-culture game it once dominated.

Some critics wonder if that ship has already sailed. Even before the dramatic ouster of CEO Philippe Dauman from the Viacom board along with other members on June 15, the drumbeat of doubt about the future has grown louder. The paradigm shift facing MTV prompted Wall Street analyst Todd Juenger to issue a report last summer bearing the ominous title “Is Viacom the Next Eastman Kodak?” Tom Eagan, an analyst at Telsey Advisory Group, believes “revitalizing MTV is critical. Not only is it the soul of the company but it generates some of Viacom’s highest affiliate fees. It’s therefore an important source of revenue.” He added, “Use of cross-platform measurement will help. But the programming strategy needs to change.” Instead of share buybacks totaling $14.5 billion since 2011, designed to prop up the stock, the company should have invested in better content and executive talent, many observers say.

As with many of its cable network peers, MTV’s ratings have been falling. MTV’s problem is compounded by the fact that is geared to young people courted by fresh-faced digital-media brands including Vice, Buzzfeed and Vox. Vice now has Viceland, an A+E Networks-backed cable channel aimed at millennials. Other digital brands are increasingly shifting their focus from text to video in order to compete for advertising dollars.

Beyond those financial realities, MTV has also dimmed as a cultural beacon. It’s not just that ratings are down; it’s that the 12-to-34-year-old viewers the net covets are turning on the TV in far fewer numbers. Especially when it comes to music discovery, that audience is on YouTube or snacking on social clips. They aren’t waiting for VJs to count down the top videos, or tuning in for reality-show antics or to connect with a community—they already have that on Snapchat.

The upfront gave Atkins his first chance to publicly respond to the doubters and lay out his plans. He articulated his strategy to resuscitate the network by putting the “M”—music—back in MTV. The handling of the Prince news that night, from handing out purple wristbands to adding “Let’s Go Crazy” to the after-party soundtrack, affirmed the new mission. “All of a sudden,” Atkins recalls, “you saw how MTV, when it’s owning its brand, has culture and music in its mortar.”

His selection as president, a post which opened up after Stephen Friedman joined the exodus of Viacom veterans last year, surprised many in the media business. It’s not only that Atkins took such a unique path to the top job and was brand-new to the Viacom fold—it was also unclear why he would want to attempt a turnaround at MTV, otherwise known as the toughest job in television.

Storm Clouds Roll In

It is hard to overstate the grip MTV once had on youth culture. The network’s decisions about which videos it played (from an influx of unpaid submissions from music labels eager to move units) created pop stars and fashion trends. Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince thrived in those early, brick-walled 1980s days. Hip-hop and Total Request Live soon followed, and then shows including The Osbournes, Beavis & Butthead and The Hills drew people to the water cooler before the internet.

As a company, MTV was where young people wanted to work. Having MTV on a résumé was a ticket to a top job elsewhere in the media business.

More recently, though, MTV “definitely has not been in the zeitgeist business, while others around them have,” Tom Freston, one of MTV’s founding executives, said in a recent TV interview. “I think there was a creative drain at the company that was significant.” Just last week, Lauren Dolgen, a 19-year MTV veteran who headed unscripted programming, left the company. She will not be replaced.

Freston was fired as CEO of MTV parent company Viacom in 2006 (he was so revered by the rank and file that they gave him a standing ovation as he walked out of the building). In another interview, Freston said that in recent years, Viacom “went from really being No. 1 in its class, as a cable network and as a creative enterprise, to pretty much the bottom of the barrel.”

He criticized Viacom’s stock buybacks and sale of its stake in the video arm of Vice, one of a multitude of newer media companies competing with MTV for the attention of millennials. “In the generation change of media…it would have been a wonderful thing for them to have in their portfolio,” he said. (Freston would know—he has been an adviser to, and money-raising guru for, Vice.)

Viacom fired back after Freston’s June 15 critique on CNBC with a statement maintaining the company “is significantly bigger, more global and generates far more profits today than when Philippe Dauman’s predecessor left office.” It cited one music-driven hit Dauman shepherded—Lip Sync Battle, which airs on Spike, not on MTV.

MTV still makes money, but SNL Kagan estimates that cash flow dropped 22% to $438.2 million in 2015 from 2014 and 32% from $647.5 million in 2011. Kagan analyst Derek Baine expects cash flow to be up in 2015, but still below 2014 levels.

Ad revenue is falling, earnings are underwhelming and the only thing boosting the company’s stock price from all-time lows earlier this year is hope that the nasty battle between Viacom’s 93-year-old controlling shareholder, Sumner Redstone, and CEO Philippe Dauman will result in a regime change.

And now Viacom is asking a little-known outsider to fill the shoes of past MTV luminaries including Freston, Judy McGrath and Bob Pittman.

“MTV had been through a lot of tumult,” said Doug Herzog, the Viacom Music and Entertainment Group president who hired Atkins and is now his boss. Viacom had cut jobs in a restructuring and the network’s widely respected early leaders over the years had left the company. “I certainly wasn’t going to candy-coat it for him. I wanted to make sure he knew what he was signing up for.”

Would Herzog call it the hardest job in television? “I think it’s pretty tough. It’s nice to have the acknowledgement out there that you’re up against something tough when you read about yourself in the papers every day,” he said. “I haven’t seen a lot of people step forward and go, ‘Hey, I have a better idea of how to fix that.’ It’s a big challenge, but a challenge I look forward to every day.”

Despite MTV’s struggles and the toxic situation at Viacom, Atkins has recruited a new team to lead the network. And at the upfront presentation, Atkins signaled he would be taking risks to turn it around.

Media buyers say MTV has its work cut out. Advertisers have few TV networks to choose from if they want to target young consumers: MTV, Adult Swim, Freeform. Even as its ratings shrink, MTV reaches a critical mass of young viewers. But media buyers generally agree that none of the network’s current programming is a must-buy.

More problematic to buyers are reports that Viacom’s head of ad sales, Jeff Lucas, is leaving to join Snapchat in July.

MTV’s upfront was designed to look like a trade show, with booths for various programs and brands, unlike the proscenium-theatre presentations MTV and other networks do most of the time. “We needed to make a statement that we’re changing things,” Atkins said. He took buyers through 14 new series and specials, including the first weekly live performance series in 20 years on the network.

There’s a lot riding on this turnaround bid. During last quarter’s earnings call, Dauman said any hopes that Viacom could increase revenue rested with improved ratings at MTV and Comedy Central.

Despite all of the pressure on the network, the brand forged from its iconic man-on-the-moon key art and “I Want My MTV” promo campaign retains a lot of goodwill.

“I would never count MTV out,” said Christina Norman, MTV president from 2006 to 2009 and now head of media agency Water Cooler Group. “I think people have wanted to sound the death knell for MTV so many times for so many years, and there are so many brands out there who would love to be in such a quote-unquote bad position as they are.”

Another MTV believer is producer Mark Burnett, who got his first greenlight from Herzog at MTV for Eco-Challenge back in 1995.

Burnett knew Atkins from Discovery, and they met within three weeks after he took over MTV. “I wanted to hear what his vision was. He really outlined that clearly,” Burnett said.

Atkins knows what young people want. “That audience is looking for something more disruptive and different, not like network TV shows,” Burnett said. Burnett appeared at the upfront to talk about the hip-hop talent competition show he’s producing that revolves around the recording studio where the performances take place. He’s also making a comedy show looking at offbeat consumer products, tentatively titled First World Problems.

“I really feel that Sean taking over MTV has the right vibe,” Burnett said. “This guy absolutely is an expert across digital media, he’s been in charge of production at Discovery. And he has dealt with actually making things, greenlighting things. It was a very astute hire.”

Sean Who?

When Atkins was tapped for the job, he was not a big name in the TV business, and even his former Discovery colleagues were surprised at first.

“Everyone looked at the announcement when he got the job and said, ‘Holy shit, who is this guy?’ The majority of people expected it to be some other recycled media person,” said JB Perrette, president of Discovery Networks International. “People sort of scratched their heads. We knew who he was, and I thought it was a bold choice. At the end of the day, you need someone who is going to think about [MTV] differently and is going to be aggressive and ambitious and not afraid to try.”

Those are Herzog’s thoughts exactly. With the media business in general facing new challenges, MTV needed a different kind of leader than it has had before. “One of the filters I gave [the search firm] was I was not just looking for the usual suspects,” Herzog said.

Atkins comes across as straightforward and informal. He has enough feel for pop culture to weigh in on the rap beef between Drake and Meek Mill (he sided with Meek, knowing it would get a rise out of network staffers). He’s lean and crackling with energy.

The unusual arc that led Atkins to the TV business began not long after his birth in a hospital in Hollywood. At age 5, he moved overseas, first to Saipan, an American island in the Pacific, and then to the Philippines. As a kid, he appeared in TV commercials, sang jingles and acted in musicals. Once his voice changed, the music gigs dried up, and by his reckoning he’s a “terrible” actor.

Atkins’ family moved back to California when he was a sophomore in high school. To learn what American kids had been up to while he was overseas, he watched bootleg VHS tapes of MTV. One tape he remembers buying came from the day Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” made its debut. At a friend’s house, a group of kids cleared the living room to recreate the zombie choreography.

Atkins went to USC and studied at the film school. In his senior year, he transferred to and graduated from California Lutheran.

Making His Way

After a stint in programming at the Disney Channel, Atkins decided to get an MBA from USC. He then re-entered the industry at a unit of Warner Bros. that made digital content. Among his projects: new Marvin the Martian cartoons and Metallica’s first streaming MP3 concert. But this was 1999, Web 1.0 days, so when Time Warner was bought by AOL, Atkins’ unit was shuttered.

His next job was running an ad-tech startup called Mediaconnex. At the same time, Arthur Smith was starting his eponymous unscripted production company and serving as a consultant to Paul Allen, the billionaire cofounder of Microsoft who got into the cable business by buying Charter Communications.

Smith was looking for a head for the consulting project. “I needed someone who had to be an entertainment guy, and he had to be a business guy,” Smith recalled. “Sean and I met. Hit it off wouldn’t be the word. We were like friends, brothers, within an hour.”

Allen’s cable business went south. Atkins helped sell Allen’s Tech TV and the cable channels he had developed. Smith then had Atkins develop reality shows. The future MTV chief got an early dose of reality by serving as a showrunner on The Swan, a series both popular and controversial for featuring plastic surgery that was part of contestants’ transformations.

The show was a complex undertaking, with 24 women in and out of hospitals, in addition to the usual shooting and editing. “Sean was a master organizer,” Smith said.

“I literally had 24 newborns, because I was pretty much at the hospital every night,” said Atkins. The unscripted experience at a thriving production company proved invaluable, but Atkins recalls taking maybe seven days off in 14 months.

After stints at Yahoo under Lloyd Braun and at HBO, where he had a hand in the early development of HBO Go, Atkins was tapped by Discovery to head up its digital studio.

During his tenure as senior VP for digital media and consumer products at Discovery, the call came from MTV. “I didn’t really actually understand what they called me about at first,” Atkins recalls.

Herzog said he didn’t know Atkins before the search firm turned him up. But “as we started to narrow down the field, very few of these folks I thought could tackle the bear that is MTV. And tha’s why I really felt Sean was the best choice.”

On the weekend of MTV’s Video Music Awards, Atkins sat down with Dauman, the final step in the hiring process. “I definitely left that room with no lack of confidence that he was going to provide the support that was needed to turn around a network,” Atkins said.

As for the corporate drama surrounding Dauman and Sumner Redstone, Atkins said: “Look, it’s just noise. It seemed more distracting when I first got here. It’s way above everybody’s pay grade.”

Cultural Assimilation

MTV can bevan intimidating place for newcomers, many of whom don’t last long. Some of the network’s remaining vets describe Atkins as a long way from the downtown, hard-charging MTV legends of the past. But they admire the job he is doing putting plans in motion, though they are far from certain to work.

Smith said Atkins isn’t dissuaded. “He loves challenges,” Smith said. “The combination of what he’s done in his career has set him up for this job.”

Atkins is known as a hard worker and frequent flier. Despite having four kids—ages 10, 8 and 6-year-old twins—he gets in a run at 5 a.m. and is among the first people in the office most days, always wearing jeans.

He had to be convinced to take MTV’s corner office, and the space was divided to create a conference room before he moved in. The office is littered with MTV tchotchkes—caps, a clock and a lunchbox. MTV, MTV2 and MTV Live play live on monitors.

Shortly after taking the job, Atkins began a listening tour and a series of town hall meetings to let staffers know him and his plans for the network. “Transitions are stressful for organizations, and so it would be pretty inhumane of me not to acknowledge that,” he said.

In meetings, Atkins has emphasized his personal connection to the MTV story. “I loved Discovery. I had no intention of leaving,” he told MTV staffers. “And then I moved my family in the middle of winter to New York. So I’m as in as you can get.”

He was also aware there would be comparisons made to the visionary executives who built the channel. “I couldn’t be clearer that I’m well aware that I’m standing on the shoulders of giants,” he said. “So it’s deeply flattering to be sitting in a chair that they used to sit in, and even have a conversation in which someone would say, ‘How would you measure yourself against them?’ I don’t. I don’t set myself up for measurements I don’t think I can achieve.”

At the same time, he was blunt about MTV’s current state. Asked what outside suppliers thought about the brand, Atkins said they used to aspire to sell shows to MTV, but that was no longer true. “I think that was a little painful for them,” he said. “But by the way, in six months, we’ve already changed that.”

In the Pipeline

The TV business usually shuts down around Christmastime, but the level of urgency around MTV lately has dictated a different schedule. Shortly after Atkins took the MTV job, he asked his old friend Arthur Smith to pitch him some shows on the Friday afternoon before the Christmas break. “If you pitch shows Friday afternoon is not a good time, and Friday afternoon before Christmas is really not a good time,” Smith said.

Atkins told Smith he loved one of the shows, a comedy. “It’s very clever and it’s very trendy. He got it right away.” Smith said. Atkins called before the holiday break to say production would start in the new year.

As traumatic as recent times have been in some ways for MTV and Viacom, plenty of people see opportunity for Atkins and his troops.

“MTV is always an exciting place, because that audience is always looking for the next thing,” said Tony DiSanto, who joined MTV as an intern and left 22 years later as president of entertainment. DiSanto is now CEO of DiGa, which produces Teen Wolf, Scream and some unscripted shows for MTV.

Atkins “has got the right attitude. To look for stuff that’s not on the air. To look for things that are new and fresh and being creatively diverse,” DiSanto said. “MTV really has to shed its skin every couple of years to connect with a new generation.”

With his team in place, a mix of Viacom and non-Viacom execs who have been through brand rebuilds before, Atkins is hoping to fill his programming pipeline. He’ll be looking at the ratings the new shows generate, but also at soft metrics that indicate buzz, a commodity in modern media that MTV basically invented.

At the upfront in April, Atkins was pleased to see media buyers climbing over one another to grab swag on display at an MTV store. “It wasn’t just people like me who grew up with MTV. A lot of them were like 22 and going crazy,” Atkins said.

The spectacle raised an existential question for the middle-aged brand: Does MTV have to be cool in order to succeed, or does it have to succeed in order to be cool?

“The answer,” said Atkins dryly, “is yes.”

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.