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MTV Chief Vows to Restore Music to Programming

The new leader of what is arguably Viacom’s best-known cable network wants to, as he put it, “put the ‘M’ back in MTV.”

At MTV, the halls are alive with the sound of music. When Sean Atkins, who was named MTV’s president last year, unveils a new programming lineup later this afternoon as part of TV’s annual upfront market, he will highlight a new live musical performance series – the network’s first new entry in that genre in nearly two decades. And he will announce 14 new series – the most, he said, MTV has debuted in a fell swoop – that are inspired by a renewed focus on music and youth culture.

“You will see a strengthening of our connection to popular culture, exploring new formats and doing the unexpected,” said Atkins in an interview. “This is the beginning of the journey.”

MTV’s recent path has been the subject of much speculation on Madison Avenue, where ad buyers have grown concerned about the network’s thematic drift. Yes, in recent years MTV has struck a chord with reality programs like “Jersey Shore,” “Catfish” and “Teen Mom,” but it has not done so with the stuff that made young people shout “I want my MTV!” back when it launched in the 1980s. To some advertisers, MTV has seemed like an outlet in need of definition. Advertising revenue at the network fell to $639.2 million in 2015, according to data from market-research firm SNL Kagan, a nearly 20% drop from the $795.6 million it captured in 2013. Affiliate fees have continued to rise, reaching $563.5 million last year.

Atkins acknowledged that MTV is in the midst of a “turnaround” effort. “The story of a major network sort of having a stumbling block and finding its way back has been written many, many times about almost every network of note, and so that’s the journey MTV is on,” said Atkins, who has supervised digital-media operations for Discovery Communications and HBO, among other companies. “It’s not going to be short or easy, but we are coming out loud and proud.”

Already, MTV has reworked MTV News, a unit of young writers and thinkers who will discuss politics and popular culture through stories, podcasts and video. It has retooled the digital-cable outlet once called Palladia, known for its schedule of concerts and music specials, and renamed it MTV Live. College network mtvU will, going forward, be “powered” with content from the MTV News unit.

At the heart of the new offerings is “Wonderland,” co-developed with Viacom sister Comedy Central. Set in a Los Angeles location with multiple rooms, the weekly series curates musical and comedic performances and encourages artists to experiment and deliver special one-off performances.

The network has also greenlit a new music competition series from Mark Burnett and  a  re-imagined version of the “MTV Unplugged,” a series that launched in the late 1980s and encouraged artists to play songs in stripped-down fashion. MTV is in a pact with Scooter Braun Films to develop “Studio 24,” in which a famous artist and mystery talent are paired to create a new song in 24 hours, and is developing a new music documentary series “Year One,” which will tap MTV’s vast store of archival footage to explore the breakthrough year in a superstar’s career.

In research sessions, said Atkins, “the thing that kept coming back is people would ask us, ‘Why isn’t there music?’ It’s not ‘Why isn’t there music videos,” he explained, but rather a recognition by consumers that “you have this unbelievable spirit animal that inspired everything you do. from having an artist-centric point of view to bringing new voices to the fore to doing the unexpected.”

MTV will challenge conventions with other new series. “Sweet/Vicious,” a new series, is a dramedy that looks at a pair of vigilantes who avenge sexual-assault victims on a college campus. “Campus rape culture and consent issues” are a big part of “what our audience is concerned about and are talking about,” said Atkins, who believes the program is “of the moment.”

In “MTV’s The Investigation,” Ryan Ferguson, who spent ten years imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, digs into similar cases to see if he can be of help. Atkins likened the effort to the popular “Serial” podcast. Ferguson may ultimately decide the people who seek his aid are actually criminals and walk away, the executive said, but will enter each effort with an open mind. Meanwhile, “The Outsiders” is a documentary series following families who live on society’s fringes.

MTV’s greenlit series follow below:

“Acting Out”  Established and up-and-coming comedians have their best stand-up routines acted out,  bringing new life to your favorite moments from stand up history.  Produced by A Smith & Co. Productions (“Hell’s Kitchen,” “American Ninja Warrior”).

 “The Almost Impossible Game Show” Contestants complete physical challenges ranging from the absurd to the outlandish in this half-hour program to  win cash prizes.  Based on a popular UK format by the same name, produced by Endemol Shine UK company Initial for ITV2. MTV is producing with Endemol Shine. Executive producers include Rob Smith and Georgie Hurford-Jones for Endemol Shine North America; Matt Odgers and Scott Teti for Left Hook Media.

 “Going Off” Choreographer Tricia Miranda  holds a master class where the best young dancers in the world compete to book a professional job. Dave Sirulnick, a longtime MTV executive, is Executive Producer for Radical Media.  Directed by Austin Peters for Radical Media.

 “Loosely Exactly Nicole” In this half-hour comedy, Nicole Byer tries to find her voice as a comedienne, but also deals with unpaid bills, friendship issues and the hilarious missteps of being on your own for the first time. Christine Zander is Showrunner/Executive Producer.  Avi Gilbert (3 Arts) and Christian Lander are Executive Producers.

 “Mary + Jane”  In this half-hour comedy, two girls living in LA deal weed and try to find romance and success with the least amount of effort possible.  Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont  serve as Executive Producers.  Television 360  is Executive Producer.

 “MTV’s The Investigation” In this serialized documentary series, Ryan Ferguson tries to uncover the truth alleged wrongfully convicted prisoners fighting for their freedom.  MTV is producing with Embassy Row.  Michael Davies, Debbie DeMontreux, Stacey Altman and Andrew Jenks are Executive Producers.

“The Outsiders”  This  docuseries will follow eight different families who have very polarizing beliefs, from white supremacists to devil worshipers. MTV is producing with Barcroft Media.

 “Shinesty” A comedic doc series about the young millennial entrepreneurs behind Shinesty, an apparel company in Boulder, Colorado, that did $5 million in sales last year.  MTV is producing with Critical Content.

“Stranded with a Million Bucks” Ten cast members are stranded on an island with nothing but the clothes on their back and a million dollars in cash. Those who survive for 40 days will split that money as their prize. The catch? They can buy any supplies they want, but everything is  expensive – and comes out of their prize money. Tollbooth TV is producing.  Kevin Lee is Executive Producer.

 “Sweet/Vicious” Two unlikely friends take justice into their own hands on their college campus.  Amanda Lasher serves as Showrunner.  Stacey Sher is Executive Producer and Jennifer Robinson is creator and Co-Executive Producer.

 “Mark Burnett Music Competition” . Undiscovered hip hop artists perform in front of music’s biggest moguls  – all in the recording studio. Mark Burnett will be executive producer with MGM Television, which will also serve as international distributor.

 “Untitled Zac Efron Documentary” Host and executive producer Zac Efron explores how food has moved to the center of millennial culture  Executive Producers are Zac Efron, Michael Simkin, Jason Barrett, Brian Volk-Weiss, Cisco Henson and Edwin Zane.  Comedy Dynamics and Ninjas Runnin’ Wild are producing.

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