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MTV boss on how the network's going back to its music roots

With a recommitment to music programming, more scripted television shows than ever in its chamber, and a desire to use every item in its toolbox to reinvigorate the brand, MTV has its sights set on doing it all. 

And network president Sean Atkins believes they can. 

Below, in a conversation held ahead of MTV's Upfront presentation to advertisers on Thursday morning, Atkins speaks with Mashable about the network's new slate, its direction, and why he's committed to "talking up" to the generation some tend to look down upon.

MASHABLE: Obviously, this whole slate you all announced today is just a huge recommitment to music programing. Tell me about those conversations and this direction.

SEAN ATKINS: Our aim is really to bring music back as our muse. It's really the inspiration for the brand. Our job is really to return it creatively to the center, but reinvent it for today's generation. *So that doesn't mean we're bringing music videos back, but if you think about what music means as an inspiration at the core of a brand like MTV, music has never been more culturally relevant, it's always part of pop culture and so is MTV. Music is always constantly always like breaking the mold, reinventing itself, doing things differently; that's what MTV is supposed to be, right? It's always about an artists's point of view and a new way to look at things, which is what MTV is supposed to do. 

So, really, if you lean into leveraging music talent and leveraging what I call on-the-nose music programming — like, say, Wonderland, which we're excited about, or the Mark Burnett project — and lean into the artist-centric point of view, with youthful energy ... you start to see the MTV of yore come back to the forefront. That's really what we're reactivating creatively within the brand.

[*Editor's note: This interview was conducted before the death of Prince, who the network honored by airing a music video marathon.]

'MTV of yore' is a good way to put it. You had docuseries called Year One that reminded me a bit of Diary. Obviously, you're bringing back Unplugged. Specifically with that show, tell me about how those conversations happened. 

The genesis of Unplugged, if you take it back to the 80s and 90s was it was a reaction to a really polished music producing that was going on. Interestingly, that's a conversation that's had a lot again now. So it seems like the right time to give artists those chances to kind of have that more intimate connection with their fans and it's something our artist partners ask us a lot about. And then you couple that with the fact that we're having a lot of cross platform conversations in the music space in terms of interesting ways to bring that to the consumer and it just seemed like the right time to bring that brand back out and play it in a new way.

So will there be social integrations?

Yes. I can't tell you too much right now in terms of some of the deals we're doing, but yeah. I think what's exciting is ... much like we're doing with the brand, there's What does the brand essence mean and What does it mean to instantiate that for a current audience. The development team talks about that all the time. We're not going to do a music video show; those days are gone. But you are going to feel as the content rolls out, the influence of music across the network.

Tell me about how Wonderland fits into that. It feels TRL-ish to me.

The way I would look at that show is we really wanted to have a place to expose new music, expose new points of view, expose new talent and have a party you could literally go to — but also go to across platforms. So we're setting up a live location that you may be able to buy tickets to go to at one point where [we'll] introduce three different acts — from high profile to emergent ones — and surround it all with talent, from music talent to comedy talent. So you're right to a certain extent that the role that a TRL could fit, in terms of exposing people to new talent and giving a place to discover people, will totally be intact, but the analogy I've often used with our internal development is if you think of SNL by structure — the ratio of comedy to music — and flipped it the other way, you might get closer to the structure of our show.

It's clear from this slate that you're not leaving scripted TV behind as you all recommit to music...

Tell me about what that balance is going to look like going forward because prior to this, you were leaning heavily into scripted.

You're right; it will always be a balance. Look, MTV has always been a broad genre-based network. We never only do one thing. In fact, because it's part our brand, we're the ones that do everything and hybridizes them and mixes them and changes them — you see a lot of that in our current slate. We're deeply committed to scripted; in fact, we will have the most amount of scripted we've ever had on the air this go around. But I think what you're seeing is the volume of content we're putting across the network is going up tremendously.

Scripted is a critical part of what we do but we look at it with the same creative filters — does it feel like something inspired by music, does it have an artist point of view and a distinct point of view that need to be told, is it going to speak to our youth audience? If we can say yes to that, then it's something we could put on our slate. I think the current ones we announced, for example, Sweet/Vicious — talk about being dead-on a great topical moment, right? With the discussion of rape culture and consent issues that are happening on colleges and sexual harassment — to be able to do a show that only MTV could do, we're going to tackle this in a dark comedy way, a very serious subject, to bring it to the forefront. It's the kind of thing I think you can be looking for from our scripted that will be tapping into those filters but also sort of doing a spin on it that feels like not anyone could do that. It can only happen here.

I loved the Veronica Mars vibes I got from the description.

Only these ladies may kill people.

If you've ever seen the movie Kick-Ass, it's in a dark comedy vain. And speaking of ways music gets back in, there's this great scene in the pilot where the two protagonists essentially just did their first accidental vigilante [act], which kind of starts the team. So they kill a guy who's trying to rape a woman and they freak out and put the body in the car and they're driving away and trying to find the right music and, of course, the first song is like this death rap. And the next thing they do is sing the theme song from Wicked as they're driving away. It's unbelievably hysterical. It's a very dark comedy.

The producing talent on that is spectacular — the showrunner is from Gilmore Girls (Amanda Lasher), the executive producer (Stacey Sher) did The Hateful Eight for Quentin Tarantino and the young writer who's the creator (Jennifer Robinson) of it is an amazing talent with a distinct voice, which is really what we look for. 

Lastly, I want to ask about your docuseries slate. The Investigation — your show about wrongfully convicted prisoners — sounds fascinating. Year One sounds exciting as a Diary fan. Tell me about beefing up that genre on the network and how, if at all, it was related to the reemergence of the true crime/documentary/nonfiction genre.

Well, you know, not only do I love MTV but you've got to remember I came from the Discovery family. What we did well at that family, obviously [Investigation Discovery] does crime and Discovery and TLC were about fascinating worlds and how you get into them in an authentic way with real people. But those were all formats built by MTV generally speaking, right? So a lot of it is saying, "Hey, we built the genres and getting into docuseries and different ways of doing docs. Let's lean back into these and take some risks." 

So I think you've hit it on the nose. If you look at some of the docuseries stuff that we've got going on, you look at The Investigation, yes, everybody's interested crime, but usually it's a whodunit. We literally found a member of our audience who at 19 years old walked into this crime totally inadvertently, had it pinned on him, and literally lost 10 years of his life. He is the person who in other shows they're trying to get out. And if you meet Ryan [Ferguson], he's unbelievably gregarious. But he literally missed a decade of his life. So to go through the experience of him going and looking at three other crimes involving people who may or may not be innocent people like he was and then him committing to getting them out is an unbelievable, unique way to get into that same structure. It doesn't seem like something you've seen before and we're super excited about that. 

And for something like The Outsiders, we have an audience who's — I always talk about it — I have the most educated, worldly wise viewership of all time. They grew up with something called Google, so if they wanted to know something, they knew it in three seconds. So they're really smart. A lot of networks talk down to them where we talk up to them. For The Outsiders, we found a bunch of families where, like, a mom wakes up and her 18-year-old son says, 'Yeah, I joined the Klan.' Like, how the hell does that happen? It's just a really fascinating way to explore worlds we know are out there, but how did it happen? We're really excited about the way we are playing in that place. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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