MTV’s ‘Wonderland’: Inside the Network’s Plan to Make Itself Cool Again

Erik Flannigan leads MTV’s revived push back into music-based programming

MTV Wonderland Lil Jon

For the first time in the better part of a decade, MTV wants to play music again.

When the network outlined its programming plans for the 2016-17 season back in April, it surprised some of its viewers with a huge slate of music-based content, led by “Wonderland,” its first live performance show in 20 years.

“The idea is to go back to having music at least somehow connected to everything we do,” recently appointed head of music and events Erik Flannigan told TheWrap.

In recent years, the network has become better known for reality shows like “Jersey Shore” or scripted fare like “Teen Wolf” than for actually playing music. But this season, it’s is looking to reverse course, with Flannigan at the helm.

In addition to “Wonderland,” which premiered last month, the network also plans to roll out a revamped version of its classic “Unplugged” series, a reality competition show from super-producer Mark Burnett, a music documentary series and an unscripted songwriting show from Scooter Braun Films.

But MTV’s renewed focus on music doesn’t mark a complete return to its early days as a 24-hour music channel. Flannigan described his programming strategy as one-third music, one-third scripted and one-third “totally unexpected.”

This new direction comes at an important time for the company. Just a few months after the network announced its new slate to the world, “Teen Wolf” creator Jeff Davis told the crowd at San Diego Comic-Con that the supernatural drama — which marked one of the network’s first and biggest successes in the scripted arena in 2011 — will come to an end next year.

The network has undergone a string of major changes behind the scenes as well. Veteran digital media executive Sean Atkins replaced Stephen Friedman as network president in September, signifying the company’s intent to reclaim its pioneer status by expanding beyond traditional TV.

Strictly in terms of linear viewing, “Wonderland” has struggled to find its footing (due at least in part to the fact that the show airs at 11 p.m. on the east coast). The Sept. 15 premiere was watched by just 135,000 people, according to Nielsen’s live plus same day numbers. By comparison, the most recent season of “Teen Wolf,” which airs in primetime, premiered to over 1.5 million viewers.

“Are the ratings where we’d like them to be? Not really,” Flannigan admitted. But he added that focusing on ratings misses the point of a show like “Wonderland.”

In addition to airing as an hour of linear television, the show is also live-streamed on Facebook and the network’s web site and mobile app. Featuring three simultaneous performance stages as well as hosted segments and live interviews, the bulk of “Wonderland” isn’t even aired on TV.

Flannigan describes the show, filmed at the Imperial Arts Studio in Downtown Los Angeles, as a “music festival that happens every week.” Indeed, when experienced in person (tickets are free), “Wonderland” plays more like a block party than a TV show. Its closest spiritual predecessor is probably the “Spring Break” specials of years past.

The question then becomes how best to translate that experience on-screen in a way that connects with viewers outside L.A. Flannigan is optimistic, noting that he expects the show to gain traction as the network rebuilds its brand as a destination for music fans.

There’s obviously an audience for music programming on TV — “The Voice” is regularly one of the highest-rated shows on TV, and NBC’s pre-taped Adele concert special was watched by more than 11 million people — and that’s an audience MTV is betting on big time.

“The Mark Burnett show starts production on Monday,” Flannigan said. “And we’re currently in the process of booking for ‘Unplugged.’”

When asked if the network’s plans could change if viewers don’t find “Wonderland,” Flannigan dismissed the idea outright. “This is just the first step,” he promised.