After years of declining ratings and relevance, MTV is shifting strategy in an attempt to return to its former glory.

Viacom Inc.’s once-iconic youth network is adding more live-music programming, a slate of new shows, and a multiplatform approach.

Sean Atkins, Santa Monica-based president of the network, has said he’s on “a mission to reignite MTV,” but it will take more than a match to set fire to the once-dominant cabler: The channel is down to just 454,000 average prime-time viewers, a full 25 percent below 2013 levels.

“Viacom’s key networks (Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and MTV), which represent the vast majority of growth and value of the company, serve audiences who are rapidly abandoning linear TV in favor of digital, on-demand options,” Todd Juenger, an analyst for New York’s Sanford C. Bernstein, wrote in a recent report. “Something has to be done to reshape the assets.”

Atkins has begun that process, unveiling four shows that are to be produced in the L.A. area. Among them are live-music series “Wonderland” and a collaboration with Venice-based Snapchat to revive MTV’s “Cribs,” focused on homes of the rich and famous, to stream on the image messaging mobile app. He is also bringing back the “Unplugged” series of live acoustic performances.

MTV representatives declined to comment on the changes or mission, but Atkins’ moves appear to be aimed at reaching back to its origins as a music channel, which one former executive said is the right strategy.

“A return to its music roots is smart on some level,” said Brian Graden, MTV’s president of programming from 1997 to 2009 and now chief executive of Beverly Hills production company Brian Graden Media. “In the over-the-top world, the brands that stand for something with specific subject matter are the most successful.”

Still, reaching coveted millennials can be tricky, and Atkins, who’s been in place since September, faces some key decisions.

“This music has got to be new, and break new stars, and compete with online sources that millennials are going to,” said Jack Yan, founder of New Zealand-based international branding firm Jack Yan & Associates.

Content alone might not be king, cautioned Graden, who said it has to be delivered on a platform that reaches the desired audience.

“MTV has always been about what’s new and next,” he said. “No matter how good your content is – it’s not clear the kids will watch.”

Hip to be square?

Like an aging rocker seeking to stay relevant with a new generation of fans, MTV will be competing with platforms its audience is far more comfortable with.

“At this point, Instagram and Snapchat are more like MTV than MTV is,” said Douglas Rushkoff, a media theorist and author who co-produced PBS documentary “Merchants of Cool” about the importance of MTV to the youth generation of the 1990s and early 2000s. “MTV was the pinnacle of a feedback loop between marketers and teens before teens began voluntarily delivering up their profiles.”

The rise of hundreds of cable networks, social media, and video platforms such as Facebook and YouTube means that a single channel or brand no longer holds the same level of authority it once did. Instead, recommendations from friends and quick, shareable content – regardless of its source – are now what drive viewership and clicks.

Though no digital strategy has been disclosed as yet, Atkins has experience with leveraging those platforms. Before joining MTV, he served as general manager and executive vice president of digital media and strategy at Discovery Communications, where he was responsible for the company’s online video networks.

MTV will also have to contend with being owned by a giant corporation, which can make it a challenge to stay cool.

“The 1980s were when MTV started and was at its hippest, when there was still an edgy, anti-establishment sense to it,” said Yan.

The attempt at a revival comes as parent Viacom, which has seen its share price fall to about $40 from a 52-week high of nearly $70, looks for strategies to create value, including possibly positioning assets for sale. It’s a game that could be afoot upon the death of Sumner Redstone, its ailing chairman emeritus.

A sale of MTV would likely not precede a spinoff of Viacom’s more valuable Paramount Pictures, which has been valued at about $4 billion, though analyst Juenger suggests its future might be brighter if it were part of a standalone business.

“If it were up to us,” he wrote, “we would explore a reorganization of the company which would include: the sale of the (salable) assets (which would include Paramount and BET), and the privatization of the remaining core businesses (which would include the flagship networks of Nickelodeon, MTV, and Comedy Central).”

So far, he said, the company appears devoted to maintaining the status quo.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.