March 23, 1963 • Hillsboro, Illinois
President of programming, MTV and VH1
Brian Graden has the knack—the knack for knowing what twenty-year-olds want to watch when they grab the remote control. As president of entertainment for MTV and VH1, Graden is responsible for deciding which programs will be the next big hits and which ones are destined to fizzle. Although the network uses market research to gauge viewer likes and dislikes, success often comes down to instinct. It is that instinct that prompted Graden to introduce original, reality programs to MTV, which transformed it from a music-video cable network to a mega-hit, must-watch channel. In 2002 Graden was charged with refreshing the identity of MTV's sister network VH1, a channel aimed at Generation X (people born in the 1960s and 1970s). VH1 soared in the ratings, and Graden proved again that he could tap into any audience. As MTV president Judy McGrath told Broadcasting & Cable, "Everything Brian does breaks through and yet is completely in touch with the popular culture."
Brian Graden has always been obsessed with music and television. He was born on March 23, 1963, in the rural community of Hillsboro, Illinois, population five thousand. When he was young, Graden taught himself how to play the piano, and by the time he was a teenager he was a major rock-music fan. In high school he and his friends formed a cover band called Ace Oxygen and the Ozones, with Graden on keyboards. When not practicing he and the band spent a lot of their time watching a brand new channel on television that showed only videos. This was Graden's first taste of MTV. As he recalled to Jeffrey Epstein of The Advocate, "I was 16 or 17 when MTV first came on the scene. Nobody had cable, but there was one person in the whole city who had satellite. So we would go over to his basement and just watch for hours and hours."
When Graden was eighteen the future of the Ozones was threatened when the guitar player's father, who was a minister, found out that his son was playing in bars. As a result, he shipped his son off to the ultra-conservative Oral Roberts University, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The determined bandmates followed, but the reunion was short-lived as the Ozones broke up just a few years later. Since his future as a rock musician seemed doubtful, Graden wondered about his next move. After graduating from Oral Roberts in 1985, he headed to Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to study business, still not sure where it would lead. One glimpse into his future came in 1988 when he took the summer off to intern at the newly formed Fox network.
"You can never become static. It is more fun to move on to something new, something you haven't tried before."
With graduation approaching, and resume in hand, Graden made the usual round of calls to interview for a job. After going from one Wall Street firm to another, it started to become clear that high finance was not for him. During one interview, in particular, it became crystal clear. In several magazine articles, Graden described his moment of revelation when an executive at a potential employer asked him: "Why do you want to be me? Why do you want my job?" His immediate response, as he told Allison Romano of Broadcasting & Cable, was "I can't imagine anything more horrifying than being you."
MTV is known for videos and for outrageous reality shows like Punk'd, where each week Hollywood heartthrob Ashton Kutcher (1978–) plays another wacky prank on one of his celebrity pals. But, since Brian Graden took the helm of the network in the late 1990s, it has also become known as a platform for raising social awareness. Graden, who is openly gay, made a special point of using public-service messages, documentaries, and regular programming to teach tolerance. "[MTV] is not pro-anything," he told The Advocate, "except tolerance. We believe that everyone should have a chance to be heard, and it's hard to argue with that."
One particularly powerful campaign, called Fight for Your Rights: Take a Stand against Discrimination, was launched in 2001. MTV kicked off the campaign by airing Anatomy of a Hate Crime, an original docudrama about Matthew Shepard, a young gay college student who was brutally murdered in 1998. The movie debuted without commercials, and immediately following, MTV ceased its regular programming for seventeen hours; instead the network continuously scrolled the names of hate-crime victims along the bottom of the screen. Graden claims that there was no debate about the decision. "When the idea came up," he explained to Philadelphia Weekly, "we just went ahead and did it because that's the kind of thing we should be doing."
In 2002 Graden was awarded the Tom Stoddard National Role Model Award, an annual award given by the Equality Forum to people or institutions that, according to Philadelphia Weekly, "promote greater understanding and sensitivity to gay and lesbian issues." According to a representative of the organization, "We believe that there is no single entity that has a greater impact [than TV] on shaping the attitudes of young people about gays and lesbians." Graden credits MTV for being open to the issues and claims that this is one reason he stays where he is. As he told The Advocate, "As a television executive, I could work anywhere, but I wanted to be here because MTV is a network that wants to do more than entertain."
In 1989, following graduation from Harvard, Graden moved to Los Angeles, California, hoping to get hired at Fox. He ended up working on the network's production staff, and just four years later, in 1993, he became vice president for program development. He also headed up Foxlab, a branch of the network that was in charge of alternative programming. Graden and his Foxlab creative team were responsible for launching such reality shows as America's Most Wanted and Cops. Always on the lookout for new talent, it was during this time that Graden happened upon two young writers who had just made their first live-action film, called Cannibal the Musical (1994). Their names were Trey Parker (1969–) and Matt Stone (1971–), and little did Graden know that the three would soon make television history. Graden hired Parker and Stone to create a Christmas video card for him to send out to friends, which resulted in The Spirit of Christmas, a five-minute animated short that eventually gave birth to South Park.
The video created such a buzz that Graden quickly tried to hire Parker and Stone to create a regular series. Fox, however, decided to pass on the project, a decision that prompted Graden to leave the network. "If Fox was not the kind of culture where South Park could be accommodated," he remarked to Romano, "then I questioned whether broadcast was the kind of medium where ideas could be accommodated." Graden left Fox and moved with Parker and Stone to the cable network Comedy Central, which first aired South Park in August of 1997. The irreverent animated series was an immediate hit, just the first example of the Graden development magic in action.
Shortly before South Park debuted, Graden left Comedy Central to branch out with his own production company. Before he had a chance, however, he was approached by a recruiter who was hiring for MTV. Graden did not think twice about abandoning his fledgling company; this was his childhood dream come true. This was not, however, the MTV that Graden grew up with. When MTV was launched in 1981, it was a revolutionary concept—a cable channel targeted at teenagers that aired nothing but music videos twenty-four-hours a day. It was basically televised radio, complete with veejays who introduced the music clips. By the 1990s, viewers were demanding more than just music videos, and MTV began featuring more and more non-music programming, some of it animated like Beavis and Butthead, and some of it reality-based, such as The Real World.
He was at the network less than four months when Graden was named executive vice president in charge of programming, or as his boss Judy McGrath put it, he became the "programming czar." Graden was tasked with revamping the MTV lineup, which was causing the network to slip dangerously in the ratings. Others at MTV assumed that Graden would cut back on the non-music programming, but he had other plans. As he told Variety in 1997, "the real idea here is to find ideas that cut through and get people's attention." And get their attention he did. Graden expanded the definition of reality TV by pushing forward prank-based comedy programs such as The Tom Green Show, featuring quirky Canadian funnyman Tom Green (1972–). And in 1998, he championed interactive television when he gave the thumbs up to Total Request Live, a call-in video request show that remains an MTV staple.
MTV ratings steadily rose and Graden developed a reputation for having his finger on the pulse of the young, hip market. In 2000 he was promoted to president of programming for MTV, as well as companion channel MTV2. "I was completely overwhelmed," Graden admitted to The Advocate, "but this was the moment I'd been waiting for." His success was only beginning. In spring 2002 Graden hit the jackpot when he launched The Osbournes, a program that followed the daily lives of bad-boy rock legend Ozzy Osbourne (1948–) and his family, including wife Sharon and children Jack and Kelly. Again, Graden had created another kind of reality show, this time blending music, the backbone of MTV, and a behind-the-scenes look at celebrity life. The show became an enormous hit, drawing millions of fans each week, and the Osbournes became America's favorite dysfunctional family.
Since viewers were only too eager to get a glimpse into the lives of the famous and nearly famous, Graden cashed in with similar series, including Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, which chronicled the ups and downs of newly married pop singers Jessica Simpson (1980–) and Nick Lachey (1973–). When the program premiered in August of 2003, Simpson and Lachey were blips on the music scene: Simpson was considered a pretty blonde clone; Lachey was a member of minor boy band 98 degrees. By the end of 2003, after they opened the doors of their Beverly Hills mansion for the cameras, they were the hottest couple in Hollywood. When Newlyweds began its second season on January 21, 2004, it was seen by 4.7 million viewers and was the number-one show in its time slot.
While MTV was enjoying an upswing, VH1 was nosediving. Formed in 1986 as an MTV alternative for a more mature audience, the channel focused on the lighter side of pop music. It did not enjoy real success, however, until the 1990s when, like MTV, it began to supplement its video format with music-related shows. The network hit it big with programs like Pop-Up Video, a novelty show where quick information clips "popped up" during videos, and Behind the Music, which profiled the lives of the music industry's biggest stars. Unfortunately, as Megan Larson of Mediaweek put it, the programs "suffered death by overplay." Instead of building its lineup, the network looped the same programs over and over, day after day. As a result, viewers got bored and tuned out. Enter Brian Graden.
In early 2002 management tapped Graden to become president of programming for VH1, hoping that he could resurrect the network just as he had done with MTV. Insiders wondered if being in charge of two networks would spread even a dynamo like Graden too thin. Graden, however, was not worried. As he told Allison Romano, "In my own journey, I was ready for a new puzzle." But, after spending some time in the VH1 offices and examining the situation, he had some doubts. First of all, VH1 staffers did not work in the same electric environment that existed at MTV. And, second, Graden discovered that there was actually very little development going on. As he told Larson, "I looked in the cupboard and saw three or four things that had some life. Virtual panic set in."
Graden immediately set about revving up the staff. At meetings he encouraged everyone, from researchers to writers to graphic artists, to express themselves. His one rule, as he explained to Mediaweek was "don't trash anyone's idea." Soon the energy level at the network had kicked into high gear and even the look and feel of on-air programming was recharged. Graphics and program promotions became hip and edgy, reflecting the tastes of the VH1 Gen-X audience. By the second half of 2002, ratings were up by 50 percent, and it looked like VH1 was on the rebound. Some critics, however, had their doubts, claiming that Graden was offering some quick fixes, but little new content. "[He] applied some great band-aids to get them to the next step," a Starcom Entertainment director told Mediaweek. "We have not seen a real daringness in programming yet."
Graden was just getting started. Again, he put out his feelers and tapped into his audience. MTV was aimed at twelve to twenty-four-year olds who were only interested in the trends of the moment. Since Gen Xers were VH1's target audience, Graden decided to target their tastes by leveraging the nostalgia factor. By the mid-2000s Gen Xers were experiencing a definite love affair with all things pop culture. "We want to trigger the emotion from a past that we share together," Graden explained to Megan Larson. "The appetite for recycled pop culture seems endless. It's comfort food." VH1 began serving up large portions of pop comfort food through such series as I Love the '80s, which was followed by I Love the '70s. Both feature highlights of movies, music, news, and fads specific to the featured decade, interspersed with commentary provided by celebrities and entertainment critics. Viewers responded and began coming back in droves. By 2004 VH1 was in full recovery and the network had nearly tripled its original programming.
People in the entertainment industry expect even greater things from Graden in the future. He is a man who relentlessly pursues popular culture, and he is always on the lookout for the next big trend. "I am a voracious consumer of culture," he admitted to Alex Williams of New York Metro, "There will be a stack of ten new CDs on my table, and then I have to TiVo everything, and I read at least thirty magazines cover to cover every month. I just can't stop." He is also known as a man who is passionate about his job. His colleagues comment about his boyish enthusiasm, which sparks a similar zeal in others. According to Judy McGrath, president of MTV Networks Music Group, "Brian enjoys the sport of TV."
And there is no end to what the former boy wonder has in the network pipelines. On VH1, Graden continues to mine the penchant for the past with series such as Super Secret TV Formulas. At the same time, he tries to bridge the generational gap (he is in his forties now, after all) through shows like In Tune, which pairs contemporary artists with musicians who inspired them. For example, in 2004, John Mayer (1977–) took the stage with his idol, singer-songwriter Paul Simon (1941–). Although Graden is a whiz at predicting the future of television, he is not quite as certain about his next career move. When asked about his plans by Jeffrey Epstein of The Advocate, he simply shrugged and replied, "I have absolutely no idea. I just want to keep being true to the moment."
Epstein, Jeffrey. "He Got His MTV." The Advocate (May 23, 2000): p. 76.
Nix, Jenny. "MTV's Graden on an Upward Curve." Variety (December 22, 1997): p. 28.
Poniewozik, James. "VH1: Gen X Nostalgia Central." Time (February 2, 2004).
Romano, Allison. "His Finger Is on the Pulse of Pop Culture." Broadcasting & Cable (September 8, 2003): p. 40.
Larson, Megan. "Behind the Makeover." MediaWeek.com (March 24, 2003) http://www.mediaweek.com/mediaweek/icopyright_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1847775 (accessed August 1, 2004).
MTV Web site. http://www.mtv.com (accessed August 1, 2004).
Valania, Jonathan. "Last Night a VJ Saved My Life." Philadelphia Weekly Online. (April 24, 2002) http://www.philadelphiaweekly.com/archives/article.asp?ArtID=2154 (accessed on June 11, 2004).
VH1 Web site. http://www.vh1.com (accessed August 1, 2004).
Williams, Alex. "MTV's Real World." New York Metro.com (December 2, 2002) http://newyorkmetro.com/nymetro/arts/tv/n_8081/index.html (accessed August 1, 2004).