EXCLUSIVE: Sean Atkins is stepping down as president of MTV a little more than a year after joining the network. I’ve learned that Atkins opted to leave when Viacom Music and Entertainment Group president Doug Herzog, to whom he reports, informed Atkins of a plan to bring in an executive over him. Atkins, who will stay on as a consultant through January advising on the transition, announced his surprising departure in a note to his staff this morning. (You can read it below the post.)

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Viacom is expected to make an announcement on the new MTV leadership later this morning. No one is commenting, but Chris McCarthy has been a rising star at the company with a string of promotions over the past year, most recently to president of VH1 and Logo, after orchestrating a ratings turnaround at MTV sibling VH1 in a short period of time. (The former MTV exec also has overseen Logo’s ratings growth and led a ratings upswing at MTV2). He would be a logical choice since I hear the reason for Herzog to bring a new top-level executive in charge of MTV is to help accelerate the network’s ratings turnaround.

Atkins, who called his stint at MTV “an incredibly enriching and rewarding experience,” was an outside-the-box choice when he was picked by Herzog last September to oversee all creative and business operations for MTV and sister networks MTV2 and mtvU, replacing Stephen Friedman. He came from a strong digital background, most recently serving as General Manager & EVP Digital Media and Strategy at Discovery Communications.


Atkins used his expertise in the successful launch of MTV’s Snapchat Discover channel. He also oversaw the launches of MTV Live and MTV Classic and the revamp of MTV News on-air as well on the MTV websites, apps and YouTube. Atkins also made a big push in original programming, filling up MTV’s original programming pipeline with the greenlights of 14 new series and specials announced at the network’s upfront in April, when he also signaled the return of music to MTV.

But while MTV made strides in expanding the brand, the network has not been able to reverse the downward trend in its linear ratings. There has been some improvement — in MTV’s core persons 18-34 demographic, ratings for its fiscal fourth quarter 2015, which ended in September 2015, were down 18% vs. the same period in 2014. This year, the network closed the gap by half, down 9% from 2015.

That proved not to be enough, compared to the quick turnaround and continuing ratings growth for sibling VH1. Additionally, the first of the new shows picked up under Atkins, which have premiered, have been soft, including Loosely Exactly Nicole and Mary + Jane. Turning MTV’s ratings around is a tough task as it means reversing a five-year slump, with has led to the former Top 10 network falling outside the Top 20.

Here is Atkins’ note:

I apologize for the shock to your Monday morning, but I have some news to share that will come as a surprise. I have decided to step down from my post as President of MTV. I’ll be consulting on the transition thru January in an advisory role.

I will leave it to Doug to fill you in on the details, but suffice it to say this was in no way an easy decision for me. This has been an incredibly enriching and rewarding experience, and I thank every single one of you for that. I am so proud of what this team has accomplished together. We’ve filled the creative pipeline with so many new projects and producers. Amazing projects like Sweet/Vicious, Stranded with a Million Dollars, Signed and Going Off are just around the corner. We’ve moved aggressively to recapture music as our muse with projects like Made in Compton, Wonderland and Virtually Famous just to name a few. We’re taking the time and care to do smart thinking around the brand and vision for MTV including bringing in new media and creative agencies to back our new brand campaign. We’ve continued to invest into our future with the successful growth of our Snapchat Discover channel, social footprint and MTV News. And we’ve continued to be an incredible social voice with our Elect This campaign and launch of our new documentary unit. This tremendous creative effort is a recipe for success and it will pay off.

I’m so deeply impressed with the team here and so grateful to have been part of it. You have unbelievable drive and dedication, unstoppable creative passion and are relentlessness in attacking challenges from every possible angle. This speaks volumes about the amazing MTV culture and your commitment to this brand.

Thank you so much, and a special word of thanks to my incredible senior team, for pushing and inspiring me every day.

You will all be in very good hands as I move on, I assure you. And I promise I will be watching and cheering as you continue to build up from the great foundation we created together.