Upfronts 2016: Atkins Looks to Bring Buzz Back at MTV

Nonlinear event signals new approach to make network relevant

Complete Coverage: Upfronts 2016

After just a few months on the job, MTV president Sean Atkins is showing media buyers—and the rest of the world—new shows he's counting on bringing the buzz back to MTV.

As its ratings have declined and its young viewers have moved on to digital forms of entertainment, critics have questioned whether a cable network like MTV can still be relevant.

An improvement at MTV is crucial for parent company Viacom, which has been underperforming on Wall Street and faces pressure because the failing health of controlling shareholder 92-year-old Sumner Redstone raises questions about Viacom's future.

For MTV's full upfront slate, click here.

Atkins says MTV is returning to its roots as a network inspired by music. It will be airing its first live music franchise in 20 years in Wonderland and is bringing back MTV Unplugged.

Another one-time MTV favorite, Cribs, will return as a series on Snapchat Discover.

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It is also working with talents including Mark Burnett, Drew Barrymore, Zac Efron, Pitbull and John Legend on fresh shows that are not only inspired by music but that live at the intersection where pop culture and unexpected executions collide.

MTV holds its upfront presentation Thursday night in New York. Atkins, who had been head of Discovery's digital networks before moving to Viacom, says he's been meeting with the network's key ad clients.

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"It's shockingly uniform in what they're asking. What they want from us is they want the buzz of MTV back. They want to feel that its culturally relevant and its core of being borne from music is back. They want it to be unexpected. They want it to make a lot of stuff again. So we're focused on that," he said.

Atkins says his message for advertisers is "we're back." He says the brand still faces a long journey but "the company is behind the brand, and they're putting in the time, the effort, the runway, the money… Our audience is that 12 to 34 audience, but our sweet spot being the 18 to 24. It's today millennials. We get them on every platform possible, capital behind it. It's a critical brand that everybody loves. This is just the first chapter."

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The upfront also takes an unexpected approach. Instead of past upfronts, in a theater, with talent introducing clips of new shows—a format many networks use—MTV is turning Moynihan Station into a mini trade show with booths and exhibits featuring shows and franchises.

"It is unabashedly a mix of entertainment and commerce," Atkins said. "It's not a linear show. It's a bunch of separate stages and interactive experiences." For Stranded With a Million Dollars, guests will be able to literally grab at money in a wind machine (or maybe win a ticket to the MTV Video Music Awards). The exhibit will also feature a tropical drink bar.

The upfront experience will be topped off by a performance by Kendrick Lamar.

MTV's upfront might not be a linear experience. To some degree the brand is still largely dependent on a cable network even though it has strong digital and social outlets at its disposal.

"We talk creatively about our programming across all platforms," Atkins said. The first question is whether or not the program is great and fits MTV's creative filters. The second question is where is its audience going to be found.

"But at the end of the day we are linear first today," Atkins said. "Do I think we're linear first in perpetuity? It's hard to imagine that the MTV brand, which is a global brand for youth culture, 10 years from now its only manifestation is a U.S. linear network."

Even now, there's one eye on the audience and another on the business model.

"I think the best manifestation is what we just did with the movie awards. It was a truly multiplatform event and lit up social," Atkins said.

Since arriving, Atkins has been building a new management team at MTV.

Recent hires include Kristin Frank, executive VP of strategy, revenue & operations; Erik Flannigan, executive VP of music/events strategy & development; and Laurel Weir, senior VP of strategic insights and research. Michael Klein, the new executive VP of original programming, starts next week.

And Atkins says there's a couple of more posts soon to be filled.

These execs have experience making content for millennials.

MTV also has access to the Viacom research apparatus. It is in contact with a panel of 7,000 millennials. And the network has about 150 interns who are mostly 20-somethings. "In the culture here we value our audience in the building," says Atkins.

But at the end of the day, Atkins and his team make the programming calls. "We go with the gut in the room. You cannot research serendipity."