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MTV Is Getting a Total Makeover to Reverse Long Ratings Slide

2016 MTV Upfront at Skylight At Moynihan Station2016 MTV Upfront at Skylight At Moynihan Station
attends the 2016 MTV Upfront at Skylight At Moynihan Station at Skylight at Moynihan Station on April 21, 2016 in New York City.Photography MTV and Mike Coppola — Getty Images for MTV

Sean Atkins has a big job in front of him: As the new president of MTV, he has to make the network cool again.

Ratings at the network that defined the 1980s and later gave birth to such cultural touchstones as The Osbournes, Punk’d and Beavis & Butt-Head have been sliding for the past five years, losing nearly half of its audience in the 18-49 demographic. Since 2011, the network has fallen from the No. 8 ad-supported cable network among that demographic to 20th. And rebuilding the core audience – an advertiser’s dream of millennials and Generation Z – has the added challenge of trying to lure viewers who have shifted away from traditional television viewing.

Atkins is betting that music, the network’s original focus, will speak to them, but that doesn’t mean MTV is on the search for a new round of VJs.

“[Our audience] is not asking us for music videos,” he says. “What they’re asking for is that component of music that is constantly evolving, that is unexpected, that gives voice to youth, that is respective of culture.”

For MTV, that means both blending music that’s relevant to its audience into its new, upcoming programming – a total of 14 announced shows – and leaning into its past a bit more than it has, with the return of “Unplugged” and “Wonderland,” its first new live music performance series in nearly 20 years. (“Think Saturday Night Live‘s ratio of music to comedy, only we’re going to reverse it,” says Atkins.)

This re-commitment to music was underlined last month during the network upfronts and after the sudden passing of Prince. Within an hour of the musician’s death being confirmed, the network cleared its schedule and played nothing but Prince music videos for the majority of the day.

Of course, just bringing the M back to MTV doesn’t guarantee the target viewer will return. And Atkins says he’s keenly aware of that.

“This is the most savvy, informed consumer that has ever been,” he says. “MTV has always talked to 18-24 year olds and that’s the group that has always had the highest bullshit meter. … We had one moment where a person in one of our focus groups said ‘What I expect from you is to make MTV as important to me as it was to my mom.’ They’re aware of [the network’s] heritage and they sometimes believe we’re not standing up to it.”

The key to regaining that trust, he says, is to create programming (both musical and otherwise) that is real – and breaks the status quo.

“Our brand is about authenticity,” he says. “How do we bring back that unexpected quality in reality television?”

Media analysts say it may take more than just the unexpected.

“I think in recent years, their core audience is migrating more toward YouTube,” says Eric Handler, senior equity analyst with MKM Partners. “And with the YouTube celebrities – people like Pew Die Pie and Captain Sparkles – 20 years ago, these people would have been on MTV, most likely. … MTV has to figure out a way – as they try to bring music back to the forefront – to [create shows] that are compelling to viewer – particularly youthful viewers and have a little bit of shelf life. In theory, it sounds good. Will it resonate with millennials? Way too early to tell.”

At the same time, Atkins, who was formerly general manager and EVP of digital media and strategy for Discovery Communications, knows that the key to reaching Gen Z and millennials is through digital means.

MTV has always been an early adopter of digital trends, such as Snapchat, he says. But Handler notes that early adoption isn’t a guarantee of success.

“They’ve been trying a bunch of digital things over the year but if you don’t have a critical mass TV audience, you’re not going to have a pool of people to send to your digital sites,” he says.

Regardless of the size of the current digital footprint, Atkins says he plans to build on that presence with a slate of executives who all have strong digital backgrounds.

“There’s not a single senior manager who’s not breathing both sides of the DNA,” he says. “A lot of what the team is focused on now is ‘how do we express our brand vision in other formats?’ From a creative process, what’s the right content for our audience, then what platform is it best suited for?”