MTV President Atkins to Leave Amid Network Ratings Slump

  • Atkins led effort to reclaim young viewers with music, digital
  • VH1 boss Chris McCarthy adds oversight of MTV in expanded role

Sean Atkins, the media veteran hired last year by Viacom Inc. to right the ship at MTV and bring the network back to its music roots, is stepping down.

Chris McCarthy, president of Viacom’s VH1 and Logo, will add MTV to his purview and continue reporting to Doug Herzog, president of Viacom’s music and entertainment group, according to a company statement Monday. Atkins will stay on as a consultant through January to help with the transition, according to a memo to staff.

Atkins leaves MTV as he found it, with viewership in decline and the future uncertain. Viacom, the media conglomerate that purchased MTV in 1985, is exploring a possible reunion with CBS Corp., owner of the nation’s most-watched broadcast network.

During his year-plus tenure, Atkins strived to reclaim MTV’s status as the arbiter of cool for teenagers and young adults. He focused on music to revitalize one of the most recognizable brands in pop culture and lure a new generation of young viewers who have replaced “Total Request Live” with YouTube and Snapchat.

He ordered MTV’s first regular live music series in almost 20 years and brought back MTV’s news division. Atkins also transformed the network’s VH1 Classic brand into MTV Classic to be the new home for old TV hits “Beavis & Butt-head,” “Daria” and “Jackass” and reruns of music shows “Unplugged” and “Storytellers.”

Online Competition

With more competition from streaming platforms like Netflix and fewer fresh hits, MTV has hemorrhaged viewers in recent years -- and is one of Viacom’s biggest losers. Viewership declined 16 percent during prime time in the third quarter as the network’s attempt to attract new audiences fell flat, according to research by Bloomberg Intelligence. 

Viewership for the year is down just 1 percent, though ratings at MTV among the network’s target demographic have declined at an annual rate of 17 percent since 2011, according to data from research firm MoffettNathanson LLC.

“We’ve filled the creative pipeline with so many new projects and producers,” Atkins said in the memo. “This tremendous creative effort is a recipe for success and it will pay off.” Prior to joining MTV, Atkins served as general manager and executive vice president of digital media and strategy at Discovery Communications Inc.

McCarthy must decide how many of the new shows to keep on the air, and how much MTV will continue to embrace its past. He began his Viacom career at MTV, working at MTVU, a cable network focused on college students. 

Viacom Career

The business school graduate rose through the ranks, overseeing a number of MTV’s smaller siblings like MTVU and MTV2, before gaining oversight of Logo and VH1. VH1 has been a brighter spot for Viacom (along with Nickelodeon) thanks to the success of the “Love & Hip Hop” franchise, which now spans three cities and has spawned three spinoffs as well. Viewership of the network is up 1 percent this year.

“I’m humbled by the opportunity to lead MTV, the place where I grew up and learned from some of the most gifted, creative and genuine leaders,” McCarthy said. “The power of the MTV brand is its ability to let go everything it knows and reinvent for the next generation of youth, and I’m excited to push the boundaries of what it can be in this transformative time.”

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