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MTV’s Turnaround Plan: More Music, More Live, More Fun

Variety logo Variety 2/9/2017 Cynthia Littleton
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What does the new regime at Viacom want from its MTV? More live programs, more music themes, a greater emphasis on youth culture and, in general, a whole lot more fun.

MTV is the biggest rehabilitation project for Viacom’s cable group, which has been reconfigured to channel more resources to six “flagship” channels out of the total domestic portfolio of 25 channels.

The process of consolidating and integrating Viacom’s cable assets began in October when VH1 and Logo president Chris McCarthy was handed the reins of MTV. Over the past few months he has assembled a core team of top execs who oversee programming, development and marketing for the three channels.

The team has raced to assemble a new slate of unscripted programming for MTV that will be unveiled starting in the summer. The goal is to seed unscripted tentpole series in an effort to bring some youthful sizzle back to the channel.

“The big theme is really for MTV run back into youth culture — where we really made our mark,” McCarthy said. “We are looking for talent to help us find the stories that will resonate in that culture.”

Viacom president-CEO Bob Bakish made it clear in outlining his overhaul of the cable group to investors on Thursday that the company will concentrate its scripted series on Spike TV, which will be transformed into the Paramount Network early next year.

MTV will continue to carry scripted series after the Paramount Network transition occurs, McCarthy said, but the volume will be reduced. In preparation for that shift, MTV has canceled two shows that recently completed their first seasons: “Mary and Jane” and “Loosely Exactly Nicole.” Producers of both series have been granted free rein to shop them to other outlets, he said.

“Teen Wolf,” “Shannara Chronicles” and the upcoming “War of the Worlds” project from the “Teen Wolf” team will remain on the roster, McCarthy said.

The pruning and refocusing of MTV’s scripted ambition will be similar to the approach McCarthy took after he landed at VH1 about two years ago. The scripted series need to be sprinkled into the schedule as a complement to a foundation of unscripted programs.

“We had a lot of scripted projects that didn’t resonate with the brand overall or connect to the viewers from our biggest reality shows,” McCarthy said of his VH1 experience. “Going forward at all of our channels we need to think, ‘Here’s our super fan. How do we serve them from a live (TV) perspective, from a scripted and from a reality perspective?’”

The unscripted projects that the development team, led by Nina Diaz, are aiming for are dominated by “fun, loud characters.” He sees a need for lighter and even sillier entertainment as an offset to the angst and polarization rising through the country following the presidential election.

“The world right now is… interesting,” McCarthy said. “We can all use moments of levity and laughter. We want to bring that back to the air.”

Hewing to MTV’s roots, there is a big emphasis on weaving music and music personalities back into the channel. And there’s a push to bring a significant number of hours of live programming back to the channel that at one time had live “veejays” cuing up videos 24/7.

“Music should be a natural element of everything we do,” he said. “It shouldn’t be isolated into one half-hour a week. Everything we do should be threaded with music and music talent.”

McCarthy and his team are hard at work trying to reinvent a “Total Request Live”-type daily franchise for the 21st century. They have been encouraged by the recent experiment of wrapping live entertainment blocks on Friday nights around the new episodes of the viral-video clip series “Ridiculousness.” Series host Rob Drydek holds court in the studio talking to fans, riffing on pop culture and social media trending topics. The plan is to create similar live blocks around original series on Thursday and Sunday nights, McCarthy said.

What’s more, McCarthy and his teams will be working more closely with counterparts at Paramount Pictures as part of the studio’s mandate to develop feature films that can be co-branded with the flagship six channels: MTV, Nickelodeon and Nick Jr., Comedy Central, BET and the Paramount Network.

The plans for MTV, VH1 and other channels amount to a new wave of changes across a company that has seen its share of executive transition and turmoil at the top during the past two years.

After Bakish was given the permanent CEO job in December, he initiated brainstorming and strategy sessions with senior managers that was code-named “New Day.”

McCarthy said the mood among his staffers was upbeat after the big unveiling Thursday morning for investors, on the heels of a quarterly earnings report that underscored the challenges ahead. (It also came on a day when Viacom closed its Times Square headquarters shortly after noon amid a storm that dumped six inches of snow on New York City.)

“I think Bob’s strategy has been incredibly thoughtful. He invited us into the loop on every step,” McCarthy said. “The plan as he expressed it today was honest, it was clear and it was straightforward. It’s easy for everyone to wrap their heads around. I think there’s a whole rekindled spirit to reinventing the entire business and getting back our swagger.”

(Pictured: Chris McCarthy)

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