MTV President Stephen Friedman Exits; Discovery's Sean Atkins Takes Over

Courtesy of MTV
Friedman, left, and Atkins

Updated: The Discovery alum will take over the role and report to Doug Herzog.

Updated: MTV announced Wednesday afternoon that Discovery Communications GM and exec vp digital media strategy Sean Atkins would take over as president of the cable network.

Atkins will report to Doug Herzog, president of the Viacom Music and Entertainment Group. MTV programming co-heads Mina Lefevre (exec vp and head of scripted) and Lauren Dolgen (head of reality and exec vp series development) will report directly to Atkins.

“Sean is smart, creative, passionate and remarkably energized about the sea change at hand in our industry,” Herzog said. “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.”

During his tenure at Discovery, Atkins ran the Discovery Studios' production unit and oversaw series including Penn & Teller Tell a Lie, King of the Crown and more. As GM and exec vp digital media and strategy, Atkins was responsible for driving online video strategy and networks including Revision3, SourceFed, Discovery News and Test Tube. 

Before joining Discovery, Atkins was senior vp digital media at HBO where he helped conceptualize what eventually became HBOGo. Before that, he was head of programming and development at Yahoo Entertainment. He also has production experience during his tenure as exec vp at unscripted producers A. Smith & Co. (American Ninja Warrior). The seasoned exec has also had stints at Warner Bros. and Disney.

Previous: Longtime MTV executive Stephen Friedman is exiting the Viacom-owned network.

The executive, who opted to not renew his contract and will pursue other endeavors, had served as president of MTV since 2011 after joining the company in 1998. A new president of MTV is expected to be announced Thursday morning.

During his tenure, Friedman — who previously served at GM and as well as the same role at mtvU, led MTV's transformation into a millennial network. He initially started in MTV's department of strategic partnerships and public affairs and rose through the ranks during his 18-year career, creating important social initiatives including its Peabody-winning It's Your (Sex) Life, among others.

News of Friedman's departure comes as Viacom continues to undergo a corporate makeover following rounds of layoffs across the company. MTV in July also saw president of programming Susanne Daniels exit for a similar post at YouTube. MTV Networks Music & Logo Group president Van Toffler also departed the company in February following a 28-year run with the company. 

Here's Friedman's memo announcing his departure: 

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 Beyonce, 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.

Here's Viacom Music and Entertainment Group president Doug Herzog's memo: 

You heard it from the man himself — Stephen Friedman has decided to leave MTV and return to the field that brought him to our door: social impact and mission-driven business. Stephen gave me notice back 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. More on that in a minute, but, first, a few words about Stephen.

Stephen joined MTV in 1998 to create its public affairs team and ultimately rose to run the entire business. 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.    

As president of MTV, Stephen transformed the network into the cultural home of the Millennial Generation, overseeing the launch of cultural juggernauts in 'Teen Mom,' 'Catfish' and 'Jersey Shore.' He led the network’s push into scripted, with critically acclaimed hits like 'Teen Wolf,' 'Awkward,' and 'Scream,' as well as the upcoming 'Shannara Chronicles.'

Stephen also ignited a creative rebirth at MTV2 and Logo, with both networks currently achieving their highest-rated years ever. He’s led the network during an incredible time of transition in media, championing the launch of Always On and MTV’s continued reinvention for the mobile age, which is driving enormous growth among our sites and app.

Pro-social has always been Stephen’s passion, though. From mtvU’s Darfur Is Dying to the provocative 'White People,' social impact is a thread that runs through Stephen’s entire career with MTV. Under his leadership, MTV has launched multiple pro-social campaigns that have had real impact and earned the network Peabodys and Emmys alike. 

Maybe the greatest credit to Stephen is the incredible team he’s built and nurtured during his tenure. As we move forward, all of you will continue to play a vital role in shaping the brand, putting great content on our screens, and keeping us connected to our audience.  

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. 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.

I’m excited to share some news on that front very soon — tomorrow, in fact — but today I hope you’ll join me in thanking Stephen for everything he’s given to MTV. 

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