MTV President Opens Up About Major Brand Reinvention: Music Is "Our Muse"

MTV president Sean Atkins - SQ 2016
Courtesy of MTV

MTV ready to live up to its name (again).

The music-themed cable network on Thursday unveiled a massive upfront slate featuring 11 new unscripted series pickups, three scripted entries and development of eight more new works from the likes of Mark Burnett, Drew Barrymore and Pitbull.

To hear new MTV president Sean Atkins tell it, it's the first of a major brand reinvention as the Viacom-owned cable network goes back to its music roots. And it shows: The wide-ranging slate features a rebooted MTV Unplugged, a live weekly music show as well as a music competition series from The Voice's Mark Burnett joining multiple other series that look to help "renovate" the network for today's generation.

Here, Atkins talks with The Hollywood Reporter about putting the music back in MTV, why its reality won't focus more on shows like Teen Mom (though that isn't going anywhere) and the challenges associated with making the cabler a destination again.  

What does this big slate say about MTV?

It says a few things, first and foremost that we're clearly bringing music as our muse back to the brand and returning it creatively to what inspires us. The idea of having music — in terms of what it means to pop culture and that it gives artists a voice and is always resonant to youth and an influencer of culture — has always been a great element of the MTV brand. We're leaning back into the heritage and resuscitating it and renovating it for today's generation. We become much more about being a voice of culture, like music is, and you see that in our slate, which is a great mix of music stuff, stuff that is influenced by pop culture trends and being in the conversation, and stuff that is unexpected in breaking formats and showing you new things. You can see in the volume that's coming out, which is even more impressive.

What do you see as your biggest challenge in reinventing MTV?

The story of any network needing a turnaround is uniform in what it takes. You get new creative, you re-energize your brand, you reassess it for what the audience is expecting, and then you have to go back in the creative community and get them re-engaged with the vision. You have to get a lot of shots on goal. The good news for me and my team and the MTV brand is that you couldn’t have a senior management team — whether it's Doug Herzog or Philippe Dauman — who are more behind what we need to get done at MTV. These are seasoned executives who know what network turnarounds look like. We have all the resources we need — from marketing and platform support, runway, finances — to get what needs to be done on the screen, and you're seeing it in terms of the increase in volume that's coming out, and you should expect to see that over the coming months and quarters. 

You're taking over MTV at a challenging time for Viacom — ratings are down almost across the board, there’s been tremendous turnover and there's the publicized friction at the top. How did that impact your decision to take the job? And how challenging is it to operate in that environment?

I like to live in a nice bubble! (Laughs.) But here's what I say to my team: I wouldn't have taken this job if I didn't believe the resources were here and hadn't been assured of it by Doug and the rest of the team here. But this is one of the crown jewels of Viacom, and they're doing what's necessary to keep it going in a very successful way and to be resuscitated. I don't pay attention to any of the shareholder or market stuff because at the end of the day, my job is listen to my audience and get great creatives to make stuff for that audience. When I think about the north star and a long-term future, I think a lot about platforms, where MTV needs to be and where our audience is. But at the end of the day, it is all about making the content that resonates with our audience, which means it's all about getting back to brand and resuscitating our creative partnerships. And it requires a lot of great content to come back out of the machine to change the perception. And that's just rolling up your sleeves, hard work, effort and taking the risks and taking the swings.

What's been your biggest learning curve since coming to MTV in September?

I didn't know where the bathroom was for the first couple weeks! (Laughs.) The culture at MTV is special — and not just inside the building but outside with what it means to our audience, advertisers, press and the creative community. It literally was a dream come true when Doug and I started talking about this. This is a brand I was raised with. The same people I grew up with in the unscripted and cable business grew up together. We were the audience who watched MTV when it launched; we're the audience who built our careers by selling to MTV. By copying MTV. By dreaming to sell a show to MTV. A lot of what I leaned in in the early days after I started going on my great listening tour — and you're hearing it back in what we're doing with music as our muse — was that people understand that MTV has to change in terms of what it does. But they don't believe it has to change in terms of what it represents to every youth audience. At the end of the day, all the great brands in cable or media stand for something at their core — but they change over time with their audience in terms of how they bring that to market. In my old life at Discovery, we don't do Hitler and Egypt documentaries anymore but what Discovery stands for is still clear in its programming. That's really what I encountered with what people were asking for — the permission to come back to MTV and get the unexpected; to be able to see stuff that is influenced by the culture of music and to see the pop culture relevance again. That's what we've been leaning heavily into.

Who is MTV's biggest competition: YouTube? Video games? Freeform?

It is everybody. We're competing with time. What you're competing against isn't just another hour of television, you're competing for mindshare: whether they pick up the phone, laptop or the remote. It's no longer, "Am I going to watch something on TV?" It's "Am I going to watch Netflix, play video games, social chat with friends or find a sticker on Snapchat?" It's that purview that we think about. When we think about our audience and the creative we're making, we ask ourselves: Is it on brand with our vision and our creative focus? Then we ask where we think the audience wants to consume this and how we should bring it to them. The audience no longer comes to us; we have to go to them.

Is your target demo still the same?

Our core demo that we've gone after from the day MTV was born is the 12-34 window. The sweet spot of the demo that's the voice of the network and who we're talking to is 18-24. MTV always resonates when it speaks with the voice of a 21-year-old. Just finished college, first apartment, first everything — they've blossomed into adulthood. All the times in our history when we've been firing on all cylinders always comes back to crushing it in the 18-24 window. When you execute against that demo, the 12- to 17-year-olds aspire up because you generally watch programming of what you want to be, not what you are. If you want to watch Shannara, this is a show made for a 21-year-old, but it's not telling anybody else who might be interested in it to go away.

You're coming from the digital world with a good handle on how to reach the elusive young demo. How will we see that prior knowledge manifest itself?

We don't have a platform bias when we think about creative. Yet at the same time, we know how the creative deals have to be constructed. What you're seeing with MTV News, with our Snapchat stuff, that's where you're seeing the substantiation of the brand first take place. MTV News is where you're seeing our voice come to the fore. We have talent from Grantland, Pitchfork, GQ, This American Life and more. That's happening now versus nine months from now when pilots come in.  

You’ve greenlighted a music competition series from Mark Burnett. How will that differ from The Voice and American Idol other than its studio component?

Mark hasn't been at MTV for almost 20 years; he started with Eco-Challenge here [it aired from 1995-2002], and he was one of the first who reached out to me. The creative community really wants to come back in and help build MTV. Mark has figured out how to make business an entertaining TV show multiple times [ABC's Shark Tank, Beyond the Tank] and how to make music an entertaining TV show multiple times. Now we're hybridizing those two into the show we're doing and specializing in the urban and hip-hop category that our demo really cares about. It will not be a shiny floor show with big voting eliminations; it's much more raw and authentic with what our audience expects. It touches both on the creative side of the music business and the business side of it. 

What kind of balance are you looking to have on the network between unscripted and scripted?

MTV has always been an original network; 90 percent of what goes on the air is completely original. We're not a buy movies and off-network sitcoms network. Because of that, unscripted will always be the vast majority of what we do. We have to do 500 hours on an annual basis. Scripted, as you can see in our slate, is at the highest level it has ever been. We're just doing more and really increasing the volume. You'll see a heavy commitment continuing in scripted using the same creative filters. I'm really proud of shows like Sweet/Vicious. The creative and research teams figured out 18 months ago that sexual politics issues and date rape culture and consent issues were boiling up as something our audience was concerned about, and then found a way to get into it in a very topical, pop culture way with this dark comedy approach with two feminist characters. You'll continue to see that different take on contemporary issues and topics of interest to our audience through our scripted space, just like you'll see it in the unscripted space.

What's your scripted pitch to the creative community?

MTV is where you come to bring your passion project. If you have a distinct point of view that is resonant with the thematics that are important for today's youth, that gives voice to them, we want to hear it.

You're entering the reality competition and survival genres with this slate. What's the next frontier for MTV?

The answer to that is no, in terms of a specific genre. What I tell the creative community is this is the network that pretty much invented or broke or fragmented every genre that is out there. I'm fascinated with ways to hybridize genres or change them from what audiences are expecting to see. A good example of that is The Outsiders, which has a dark view of the world with an interesting turn. MTV has always played with dark space, but not on this level. Our audience grew up with reality, so they know all the structures and tropes. Some of our shows, we break all the fourth walls and you see the crew the whole time. With Stranded With a Million Bucks, the beginning of the show acknowledges that all these shows are about how much you suffer, and then you might win $1 million. But if you already have it, the question is how much of that are you willing to give away to suffer less. We turn the entire structure upside down. You'll see a lot of that coming out from us in terms of fresh and new approaches. 

Missing from this slate are staples like Teen Mom and the like. Are you shying away from this kind of tabloid fare? What's the future of that franchise at MTV?

The Teen Mom franchise has a massive audience and is part of a very strong Monday night for us. That's not going away. We're always talking about ways to grow it, keep it relevant and other spinoffs. There are some things we're piloting and looking at. For the entire unscripted business, the notion of cliched unscripted trope characters that you follow around with a camera and everybody knows it's pseudo-scripted — those days are really over. Not just at MTV but for everyone. You won't see a lot of that coming from us because our audience has a high bullshit meter and they're the first to tell us if they don't like it. You can't bullshit an 18-year-old. I'm not looking for a lot of manufactured reality; I'm looking for more authentic reality like The Outsiders and Going Off. The latter is shot at what is considered the best dance class in L.A. with one of the best dance teachers in the entire hip-hop world. That is 100 percent authentic, and we're not making anything up with that show.

Looking at your scripted roster, how much more life is left in current scripted shows like Teen Wolf, Faking It and Awkward, which is supposed to be in its final season but whose showrunners are open to doing more?

We haven't made any decisions on those shows. We've been focused on priming the pump [with the massive slate], and you'll be hearing in the next few weeks and months about some of the other pickups we're doing on some of the franchises that are a little older. Awkward, Teen Wolf and Faking It are still strong providers for us.

Scream underwent a showrunner change after the ratings underperformed in season one. How are you rebooting it for season two?

We brought in new showrunners and there's going to be some changes in the cast that you'll be expecting. It's going to have a stronger lead-in and a new, interesting marketing campaign around "Who Can You Trust?" which is really the theme of this next season. For Scream fans, it'll be even Scream-ier and gorier. The people component of it will be amped as well. But an anthology is not the path we're taking.