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What's old is new: MTV plots a major return to music

What's old is new: MTV plots a major return to music
An MTV logo from 1996. The channel plans to return to its music focus. (AP / AP)

For much of the modern era, the word music in the MTV acronym has been an afterthought, a vestige of an earlier time and identity.

That's all about to change.

Under the guidance of new President Sean Atkins, the youth network is embarking on a redo that will put music at its center.

With ratings flat or down in a number of time periods, MTV is turning to songs as its savior. The network is prepping a new version of its classic "Unplugged"; a music competition show in the world of hip-hop produced by Mark Burnett; and an L.A.-set live-music series titled "Wonderland." The last one is MTV's first such program in about two decades.

Though much of the network's success this century has come via nonscripted series with little connection to bands ("Jersey Shore," "The Hills")--and though original scripted programming remains the rage across much of the cable dial -- MTV believes it will fare better by returning to its roots.

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"The thing that kept coming back when I first started this job was, 'Why doesn't MTV do more music?" Atkins said in an interview. "Music is our muse, our spirit animal. And it's a great muse to have. So we're leaning into it."

The changes will be announced at MTV's annual upfront presentation to advertisers here on Thursday afternoon, which will feature a performance by Kendrick Lamar.

The new direction comes at a time of MTV uncertainty--and executive housecleaning. With ratings stagnant, fears of millennial cord-cutting rising and no new shows on the breakout level of "Jersey Shore," owner Viacom and Doug Herzog, the company's president of the music and entertainment group, have embarked on a series of major personnel changes. Since the start of 2015, well-known MTV executives including Van Toffler, Susanne Daniels and Stephen Friedman have all left the network.

Atkins, a digitally savvy veteran of Discovery and HBO, arrived in the fall with a mandate to revive its fortunes. The company last month hired Conde Nast veteran Michael Klein as head of programming.

The changes also come as Viacom has been embroiled in a succession battle, with family members and associates of Sumner Redstone vying for control of the company.

Music won't be the only attempt to solve to MTV's woes. The network on Thursday will announce that it has greenlighted scripted series including "Almost Loosely Nicole," inspired by the life of comedian and "Girl Code" star Nicole Byers; "Sweet/Vicious," an hourlong about a set of characters who avenge sexual-assault crimes; a twins drama titled "Blooms," executive produced by Drew Barrymore; and "Mary + Jane," a comedy set in the world of pot dealers and L.A. hipsters.

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It also has other nonscripted fare, such as a food show executive produced by Zac Efron; "MTV's The Investigation," a look at instances of wrongful legal convictions by Ryan Ferguson, a Missouri-born personal trainer who was himself wrongly jailed for murder; a survival game show titled "Stranded With a Million Bucks"; and a film program called "Greatest Movie Show of all Time," executive produced by Dwayne Johnson.

Mina Lefevre and Lauren Dolgen--the heads of scripted and nonscripted, respectively--remain in their positions. And the network announced Wednesday that "The Shannara Chronicles" -- the most expensive fantasy series in its history -- has been renewed for a second season.

But Atkins said he's wary that too much non-music fare could throw the network out of balance, and so has set out to find as much music programming as possible.

The Burnett hip-hop show--it will involve the business side as much the creative, a kind of "Shark Tank" meets "the Voice," according to MTV, is especially intriguing, given the producer's pioneering role in reality competition series space (and given that the most successful show in the genre, "American Idol," just wound down after a ratings plummet.)

"Wonderland," meanwhile, will be an hourlong show focusing on a different series of acts every week. With the help of sister channel Comedy Central, the series will showcase  "the best new music, groundbreaking live performances and young comedic talent under one roof," according to a network statement, with live performances "the beating heart of every episode."

And more music could be on the way: Other shows in development include "Year One," an archival look at a superstar's early days; "It's the Real," a Jewish/hip-hop mashup produced by John Legend's company; and "Studio 24," a pairing of artist and celebrity to create a song in 24 hours, executive produced by Justin Bieber manager Scooter Braun.

"Unplugged," which could be on the air in coming months, will stoke the interest of those who came of age with artists such as Nirvana, Eric Clapton and Arrested Development breaking down their music to its acoustic basics, often with some added atmosphere.

"It won't be carpets and candles," Erik Flannigan, executive vice president of music and multiplatform strategy, said of the new show. "And it won't be rock legends playing their catalog. "What we want to do," he said, "is take the attributes that made 'Unplugged' such a success for so many years and reimagine them for 2016."

Those attributes include the idea of stripping down music that has become too produced, a factor that was one reason for the show's launch in 1989 and that MTV executives believe remains important now. (Incidentally, nostalgia will be at play in some other ways--the network plans on announcing a revived "Cribs" -- but on Snapchat -- and has recently hired a number of respected journalists from Grantland and elsewhere to work on a revived MTV News brand.)

Whether music can be a viable strategy remains to be seen. Any longings a for a channel that once played videos and debuted new bands does not exist for the network's core group of millennial viewers in 2016.  And there are many more places today to learn about and revel in new music than there were in the formative years of the Gen-X and Baby Boomer audiences of MTV's past.

Flannigan said the network recognizes that many of the elements that weren't around when MTV was born--particularly digital music services like Spotify and social media sites that help spread word of new music--are around now and playing the role of tastemaker that MTV once did. He said it won't always seek to compete on the discovery front. But he does feel there is a way to enhance the relationship fans have with musicians.

"It's easier than ever to discover songs you love," he said. "I think it's harder to fall in love with artists."

He added that he felt this was as much about audience demand as network experimentation.  "Our commitment to [music] has wavered in recent years even though it's something the audience continues to seek from us." MTV will continue to not air videos, saving those for multiplex channels such as MTVU, or digital upstarts like Vevo.

After a long run in the 1980s and 1990s as a network defined by music-related programming ("Headbangers Ball," "Yo! MTV Raps" and the heyday of "TRL" all among them), the network this century reinvented itself as a place for shiny reality television as "The Hills" and "Jersey Shore" became phenomena to rival network nonscripted granddaddy "The Real World."

MTV then sought to become a place for youth-skewing scripted fare, in recent years achieving various degrees of success with shows such as "Teen Wolf," "Awkward," "Finding Carter" and "Scream." The hope now is that a return to the music world will seem fresh after so many non-melodic iterations.

"We know there are a lot of challenges ahead," Atkins said. "But one of the reasons I came here is because who doesn't want to be a part of the third reinvention of MTV?

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