Can MTV Return to the Cultural Forefront? Its New President Has a Two-Year Plan

Matt Furman
Sean Atkins photographed Sept. 6, 2016 at the MTV offices in New York City.

Amid lurid boardroom drama and plunging ratings, MTV president Sean Atkins, 45, talks his two-year turnaround plan and why the “M” in MTV still matters. 

When you left Discovery Communications to join MTV last October, what’s the overarching thing you were brought on to do?
To bring MTV back to the cultural forefront.

That’s no small task, given the current state of the network.
There are ebbs and flows for any consumer brand. That’s not unique to MTV and it’s not unique to cable — it happens to brands like Tide or to technology brands, too. But obviously, in traditional TV, the Nielsen-measured universe has been shrinking. People are watching premium media in higher levels than ever, but they’re watching it online or on their phones, and that consumption behavior is more challenging to measure. And as with most technology-driven changes with consumers, it generally happens at the younger end of the demo. MTV is the canary in the coal mine.

TV viewership for August’s Video Music Awards was down 34 percent, and although streaming was up 75 percent, headlines the next day described the ratings as “crashing,” “plummeting” and “flopping.” Were those fair?

Any one of us playing in linear platforms has that story being repeated about them. It’s not the ideal scenario, but it’s the truth of the business we’re in. Obviously, I would have liked the ratings to be higher, but the percentage gains on digital’s multiplatform side were meteoric.

It seems that the network lacks an identity, no less a hit show.

Yes, that’s very fair to say. It’s all about great content, right? And if we’re blunt, we haven’t been doing that very well. What happened to MTV happens with many programming entities that struggle with their brand. You’re following your audience, you’re pushing the edges, and then a hit comes out of the blue, not the one you were necessarily expecting. Over at A&E, it was Duck Dynasty. At MTV, it was Jersey Shore. A show blows up and becomes the largest show on television, and that black hole starts to move the whole brand. But at some point — and you can never predict when — that white-hot nova self-extinguishes. And you’re surrounded with the wake of that. It can take two years to restart your pipeline and recommunicate your identity.

So how do you turn things around?

First, we have pretty much an entirely new senior team here, all of whom have been in the trenches during a turnaround. Second, we have to fix our relationship with the creative community. They didn’t like working with us. We had a poor reputation: We nickel-and-dimed the creators, and the process was cumbersome. I went to them and said, “Look, I know it sucks. We need to rebuild trust.” The first step of solving a problem is admitting you have one. And we’ve had some pretty quick results. For instance, Mark Burnett hadn’t been back to the network in a decade and he’s doing a music show with us, a hybrid of Shark Tank and The Apprentice. This year has been about fixing relationships, and next year is going to be about getting our volume up. Just five years ago, MTV produced about 600 hours of original programming. Now we’re down to about half that.

Where does music fit into MTV?
Right now about a third of our slate is what I’d call directly in music, significantly more than in the recent past.

Why do that? Why return to music as a central focus of the brand?
Our audience knows we’re not going back to music videos, but they want us to do great music programming. So, for instance, we have Wonderland, an hour-long live music show where multiple acts are playing in different rooms; in the nonlinear feeds, you can watch any of the performances and jump in on Facebook or Snapchat. We also have a show with Scooter Braun called Studio 24, where we put a band in the studio and they have to write a new song in 24 hours that we’ll release.

Who is your competition?
Oh, Lord, I think anyone who answers this question better say, “Everybody.” On the linear side, we’re playing directly against Freeform and Adult Swim, and on the digital side, everyone from Facebook to BuzzFeed to Snapchat to YouTube.

I imagine you get a lot of people advising you to just poach some YouTubers and give them their own shows.
One hundred percent correct! “Hey, you should put PewDiePie on MTV because he’s the biggest YouTuber of all time.” Adaptations, which is essentially what they’re asking me to do, are really effing hard. Ninety-nine percent of them fail. And the medium matters. A lot.

In September, Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman was officially forced out after a very public family soap opera over control of the company, and it was just announced that the interim CEO is leaving in November. What’s the latest with all the changes at the top?
Hell if I know; I read about it in the press. That is, by the way, what’s going on — everybody learns externally, no one learns internally. To be fair, I’m not that distracted by it because I’m new. I’ve got a lot to do.

When can we judge if you have been successful at turning MTV around?
In my experience, it’s at minimum a two-year journey. They always say that one hit solves all problems. I argue that these days, it actually takes two.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 8 issue of Billboard.