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MTV Wants to Bring the ‘Music’ Back to ‘Music Television’

Eager to reinvent itself, MTV is reaching back to the future, restoring more music to the mix.

Holy Adam Curry, they’re bringing the music back to MTV!

The network has announced plans to launch “Wonderland,” billed as MTV’s first weekly live music performance series in nearly 20 years. Also on tap: The return of one-time network staple “MTV Unplugged,” and a new hip-hop competition series from “The Voice” executive producer Mark Burnett.

It’s part of new MTV president Sean Atkins’ attempt to boost the channel’s flagging ratings by going back to the future. “We’re on a mission to reignite MTV,” he said in a statement.

Viacom tapped Atkins last September to help reverse MTV’s sagging ratings. Granted, most cable networks have experienced deep declines over the past year or two. But MTV in particular has struggled as its target Millennial audience gravitates to other platforms. MTV ended 2015 averaging 369,000 adults 18-49 in primetime, down from 487,000 the previous year. Overall, MTV averaged 578,000 viewers in 2015 vs. 778,000 in 2014.

Now, under Atkins, the channel is finally acknowledging that perhaps it had gone too far in banishing most of the “M” from MTV.

MTV still plays music videos for insomniacs (usually from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. on weekdays) and the Video Music Awards remains its biggest event of the year.

But as MTV mostly abandoned its music roots and expanded into scripted programming, network execs have had to contend with snarky critics (mostly of the Gen X variety) bitter that the MTV of their youth had disappeared.

READ MORE: “I Want My MTV”: James Ponsoldt to Write & Direct Film Outlining First Decade of the Iconic Network

Erik Flannigan, MTV’s executive VP of music/events strategy and development, admitted to Indiewire that it’s the first thing he hears when he tells people where he works. “As annoying as it can be, I read into it that people are always rooting for us to be what they loved about us. That doesn’t mean we have to go back to the past and return to an era that you can’t re-create.”

Indeed, the days of Martha Quinn and Downtown Julie Brown introducing the latest Janet Jackson jam are long gone—and never coming back. And if you ask why, you’re dating yourself. (You want to see a music video? Hit up YouTube.)

But that era of MTV at least attracted a broader audience – kids and teens who were attracted to the rebellious nature of the programming, and adults interested in the music and lifestyle fare. More recently, MTV has been hyper-focused on female teens, a demo already saturated by rivals like Freeform and distracted by digital and online platforms.  To reverse its ratings tumble, MTV will have to target a wider tent — and not solely rely on its fickle core.

The CW engineered a ratings rebirth by similarly expanding its audience. Now MTV appears ready to welcome back a wider swath of viewers. Beyond the return of the music, several of MTV’s other new shows feel inspired by the channel’s past iconic series, such as “The Almost Impossible Game Show” (“Remote Control,” anyone?) and the Dwayne Johnson-produced “Greatest Movie Show of All Time, This Week” (remember MTV’s “The Big Picture” with Chris Connelly?), currently in development.

The channel has also been reinvesting in its MTV News, adding staff and looking to make the division once again relevant like it was in the era of Kurt Loder.

READ MORE: The Indie Films that the MTV Movie Awards Aren’t Leaving Behind

As for the new music shows, Flannigan told us “Wonderland” would serve as a weekly flagship that, in success, could expand to multiple times a week. “It’s a super ambitious show in ways I can’t tell you yet,” he said. “We have set the bar high, in a location in LA that no one has shot before.” The show, which was co-created by Comedy Central execs, will mash up live music talent with comedians.

Flannigan said the revived “MTV Unplugged” would also rethink what it means for today’s pop artists to play in a stripped-down environment. “If you think about the most influential artists and records of the last 12 months, there is a different way to hear that music,” he said.

Burnett’s untitled hip-hop competition will focus on artists working in the studio and competing for a record deal (no swiveling chairs or shiny floor stage performances here.)

The channel hasn’t retreated from scripted fare, picking up the dramedy “Acting Out” and developing others, including projects from Pitbull’s and Drew Barrymore’s production companies. (Previously renewed shows like “The Shannara Chronicles” continue as well.) But the emphasis this time out is on MTV’s bread-and-butter: unscripted. The channel will even launch its version of “Making a Murderer” and “The Jinx,” the docuseries “MTV’s The Investigation,” about wrongfully convicted prisoners fighting to be exonerated.

It sounds a lot like the MTV we used to know, and there’s good reason for that. MTV has managed to survive and thrive by reinventing itself many times over the past 35 years. But getting young people, who don’t necessarily watch TV, to shout “I want my MTV!” may be the biggest challenge it has ever faced.

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