MTV Plans First Regular Live Music Series in Almost 20 Years

  • Cable network orders 14 new programs for upcoming TV season
  • MTV to make slate of shows for Snapchat, including ‘Cribs’

MTV is trying to put the music back in music television.

The cable network that popularized the music video plans to air its first weekly live music series in almost 20 years, as well as a music competition series from “Survivor” producer Mark Burnett and a new version of the “MTV Unplugged” performance series. MTV executives announced the plans Thursday at a presentation for advertisers in New York.

“We are re-asserting our DNA,” Sean Atkins, president of the network, said in an interview. “MTV has to be the network that gives voice to youth and gives artists a voice to speak to youth. Music is our muse.”

This renewed focus on music is a key part of Viacom Inc.’s efforts to revitalize one of the most recognizable brands in modern pop culture, and lure a new generation of young viewers who have replaced “Total Request Live” with YouTube and Snapchat.
With more competition and fewer fresh hits, MTV has hemorrhaged viewers in recent years.

Prime-time viewership is down about 4 percent this season, after a double-digit decline a year earlier, as young people turn to online video for more of their entertainment. The ratings decline, along with viewer losses at Comedy Central and Nickelodeon, has made Viacom vulnerable in negotiations with pay-TV providers like Dish Network Corp., which has pressured the media company to rein in prices or face the threat of a blackout. The two companies announced a new long-term deal Thursday.

It’s still up to Atkins to make sure viewers want their MTV so much that pay-TV providers can’t afford to go without it.

“They’ve been trying to turn MTV around for a decade, maybe more," said Doug Creutz, an analyst with Cowen & Co. “It’s been losing relevance for a long time. Some of it is just demographic realities. It is catering to demographics that are doing something other than watching TV.”

MTV will announce 14 new series during the presentation, the most in network history, and almost all of them have ties to music and pop culture. For “Wonderland,” the weekly music show, MTV will stage concerts at a loft in downtown Los Angeles that can accommodate multiple bands and comedy acts, inviting in the same youth who used to flock to New York’s Times Square for “TRL” and to beaches for MTV’s spring break festivities.

“It will be a place you want to go, a physical place where you can be part of MTV,” Atkins said. “No one wants ‘TRL’ again, but they want to know how we recapture the spirit of an event people want to attend.”

Reality Shows

MTV had all but abandoned music programming in recent years, focusing instead on reality TV programs like “Teen Mom,” “Catfish” and “The Challenge.” That worked in the days of “Jersey Shore,” before Netflix and other online video sites captured viewers’ attention.

Reality shows are still a big part of the channel’s lineup, and MTV said it has ordered new reality series such as “Stranded with a Million Bucks,” in which 10 people must survive on an island for 40 days with $1 million between them, and “The Almost Impossible Game Show,” a riff on a U.K. competition series.

Even many of these reality shows will take their inspiration from music and pop culture, such as “Going Off,” a series set in the studio of an accomplished choreographer. MTV is also developing a drama show with singer John Legend about a couple of white rappers in New York, while Pitbull will executive produce a show about a young guy in Miami who makes it big.

All of these new shows reflect a strategy born during a conversation between Atkins and senior Viacom executive Doug Herzog before Atkins took the helm of MTV last September. The two agreed MTV needed to rebuild the programming pipeline and re-establish its reputation as a destination for fresh ideas.

“When I was coming up in the business, MTV is where you wanted to sell your first show because they were about distinct voices, they took the risks, they broke the mold,” Atkins said. “We want to make this place open for business in the creative community.”

For all the talk of risks, Atkins has frequently dug into MTV’s past for answers. Earlier this year he reintroduced MTV News, hiring more than two dozen journalists to cover politics and pop culture for MTV’s website, social-media channels and TV networks.

MTV will resuscitate the show “Cribs,” in which celebrities take viewers on a tour of their mansions, showing off their cars, pools and idiosyncratic luxury items. The new “Cribs” will appear on Snapchat rather than a TV network, part of a larger slate of original series MTV will make for a messaging app that already appeals to the audience MTV wants to get back.

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