Will the Return of ‘Unplugged’ and ‘Cribs’ Bring Millennials Back to MTV?

New president hopes music focus reverses ratings slide

Can MTV be saved? New president Sean Atkins thinks so, and ahead of today's upfront event, he's revealing how: by putting the music back into the network that used to be known as Music Television and relaunching two of the network's most iconic series.

Today's slate—Atkins' first since he took over as president of MTV in September when he replaced Stephen Friedman—includes four new music-themed series, highlighted by the return of MTV Unplugged, one of the network's signature franchises. And the network is doubling down on its commitment to Snapchat by reviving another beloved show, Cribs, on that platform.

Along with invigorating the MTV brand, Atkins is also shaking up the traditional upfront format at today's event, which will be held at New York's Skylight at Moynihan Station.

"Think of it much more like you were going to Comic-Con versus going to an upfront," said Atkins of the pop art tradeshow format, called "Buy MTV," which will feature an open environment, multiple stages and interactive booths highlighting the network's new shows and initiatives.

The event is hosted by comedian Nicole Byer—who stars in the new scripted comedy, Loosely Exactly Nicole, about her attempts to break into Hollywood—and will feature a performance by Kendrick Lamar.

Atkins has a seemingly Herculean task on his hands as he tries to reverse MTV's ratings slide. In the past five years, the network has fallen from the No. 8 ad-supported cable network in the 18-49 demographic (in live-plus-3) to 20th, losing nearly half its 18-49 audience in the process. The path back to relevancy, said Atkins, is "to remember what your brand heritage is" and find a modern way to express it. And for Atkins, that means a return to music-based programming. 

"What I'm most excited about, what attracted me personally coming back to MTV, is that we're going to bring back music as our muse at the network and return it creatively to the center of the brand," he said.

Of the 14 new series and specials MTV announced today, four of them are centered on music. MTV Unplugged was a staple of the network in the late '80s and '90s, featuring  stripped-down, acoustic performances from music's biggest stars. Atkins said the show launched at a time "when music was overpolished, and there was this great reaction when you got back to the true essence of how music could look and feel." Now, the industry seems to be at a similar point again, which makes it an ideal time to bring Unplugged back.

In addition to Unplugged, the network is launching its first weekly live music performance series in two decades. Wonderland debuts this fall featuring live performances from three acts each week.

There's also a new music competition series from The Voice and Shark Tank executive producer Mark Burnett. Atkins said the show will combine the best elements of both series—the intersection of the music and business worlds— "in genres much more relevant to our millennials demo." That means more hip-hop and less country. MTV is also developing a music documentary series, Year One, which will look at an icon's breakthrough year via archival footage.

"Ultimately, we're going to get to a place as we move to this transition where you'll again feel the inspiration and influence of music across all of our programming," Atkins said.

Despite its return to music, MTV is remaining in the scripted world with new shows like Sweet/Vicious (an hour-long dramedy about a sorority girl and a hacker who team up to avenge sexual assault victims on a college campus) and Mary + Jane about pot dealers who run a marijuana delivery app in L.A.

On the documentary front, there's The Investigation, a series in which Ryan Ferguson, who was wrongly imprisoned for 10 years, looks into cases of other people who were jailed for crimes they didn't commit. Stranded With a Million Bucks is a reality competition series with contestants stuck on a remote island with a money-filled suitcase that can be used to buy survival items. The remaining money will be split by whichever contestants survive for 40 days. And Zac Efron will executive produce and host a new documentary about millennial food culture.

Beyond the slate of new series, MTV has struck development deals for shows produced by big names like Burnett (a comedic half-hour reality show called First World Problems), Pitbull (a Miami-based drama called 305), Drew Barrymore (a coming-of-age drama about twins called Blooms), Dwayne Johnson (a weekly comedy and talk show about movies called Greatest Movie Show of All Time, This Week), John Legend (It's the Real, about a Jewish comedy-rap duo from New York) and Scooter Braun (Studio 24, a music series).

MTV is also making a splash on the digital front by bringing back Cribs. The show, which debuted in 2000 and featured artists and celebs giving guided tours of their palatial homes, will return as a short-form series on MTV's Snapchat Discover channel, which launched in February as part of Viacom's efforts to stay relevant with millennials. It will debut in late June as a weekly series and include artists like Mac Miller, Austin Mahone and Travis Mills.

On May 14, MTV will debut another Snapchat series, Pants Off, a sex and relationship-themed show from Laci Green, host of MTV Braless. And Atkins says several other new Snapchat series will roll out soon.

At today's upfront event, MTV will also tout MTV News, which Atkins has tried to make relevant again for a new generation. MTV News continued its expansion this week with five new podcasts and the announcement of several new hires—including Rachel Zarrell, a founding member of Buzzfeed Motion Pictures NY, and Jane Marie, a producer from This American Life.

The slate announced at the upfront presentation "is a very strong indication of the journey that MTV is on," according to Atkins.

"I think people are going be stunned by how fast the new team has come together and the amount of volume that is going to be cranked out of here," he said. "It's a real indication that Viacom and the leadership here is really behind MTV and doing what it is going to take to bring it back to the forefront."