Brian Graden Biography

President of Entertainment for MTV and VH1

Born March 23, 1963, in Hillsboro, IL. Education: Oral Roberts University, Tulsa, OK, B.A, 1985; Harvard Business School, Boston, MA, M.B.A., 1989.


Office —2600 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404–3556; 1515 Broadway, New York, NY 10036–8901.


Executive for Fox Television Stations Productions, 1989–95; named vice president of program development, 1993; head of Foxlab, 1995–96; executive vice president of South Park, 1996–97; principal, Brian Graden Productions; executive vice president of programming for MTV, 1997–2000; president of programming for MTV and MTV2, 2000–02; named president of entertainment for MTV and VH1, 2002.


CableAce Award for animated programming special or series, National Academy of Cable Programming, for South Park, 1997; Tom Stoddard National Role Model Award, PrideFest America, for distinguished contribution to social change for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, 2002.


Brian Graden serves as president of entertainment for the cable–music channels MTV and VH1, two properties in the immense Viacom multi-media

Brian Graden
empire. Both are tremendous advertising–revenue generators for Viacom, but it is Graden's task to ensure that they remain fresh and up–to–date with viewers across a difficult–to–nail demographic. In that he has succeeded: Graden is the executive who greenlighted the shows Jackass and The Osbournes, among several other ratings–winners. "Graden's touch in the late 1990s brought new hits to basic cable that broke the old rules with raw, anything–goes humor," noted New York Times writer Jim Rutenberg, "and ultimately pushed the barriers of taste for all television."

Born in 1963, Graden is a native of Hillsboro, Illinois, a small, semi–rural community outside of St. Louis, Missouri. He played the piano as a youngster, and became an ardent rock–music fan as a teenager. He recalled his first experience with the music–video medium that revolutionized the entertainment industry in an Advocate interview with Jeffrey Epstein. "I was 16 or 17 when MTV first came on the scene," he said. "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."

Graden was elected president of his senior class, and played in a rock band called Ace Oxygen and the Ozones. When one bandmate's father, a conservative preacher, ordered his son to attend Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma, the rest of the band followed. The Ozones broke up midway through their college years, but Graden stayed on at the Tulsa school and earned his degree in 1985. He entered Harvard Business School, and in the summer of 1988 took an unpaid internship at the fledgling Fox Television network. "I worked on a show called King of the Mountain in the middle of the desert in 100–degree heat and loved it," he recalled in an interview with Mediaweek writer Sue Karlin.

Graden's career direction did not crystallize for him, however, until his final year at Harvard, when he made the rounds of Wall Street firms on the job–prospecting interviews that are standard for soon–to–be–minted business–school graduates. He decided that high finance was not for him after one meeting with a leading investment bank in which the executive across from him asked him why he wanted to be in the interviewer's chair someday. "I had a rare moment of clarity," Graden recalled to Broadcasting & Cable 's Allison Romano, "and thought, 'I can't imagine anything more horrifying than being you.'"

Deciding that the entertainment industry was a better fit, Graden went back to Fox. He won a slot on the network's production staff, working on the creative team that brought such shows as Studs and Cops to the air, and by 1993 had become a vice president for program development. For a year in the mid–1990s, he headed Foxlab, its alternative programming division. After meeting two renegade animators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Graden thought it wise to sign them to some sort of contract before a rival company poached them from Fox. So, he commissioned them to make a Christmas video card for $2,000. The cartoon—a crudely animated debate over the merits of Santa Claus versus Jesus Christ—generated a buzz when it arrived on the desks of executives across town, and convinced Graden that he indeed had a potential hit with Parker and Stone. From that video came the South Park cartoon series.

Fox, however, was uninterested in South Park, and so Graden decided that his time there was up. He spent 18 months as executive vice president for South Park, and helped make the series, which debuted on the cable network Comedy Central in 1997, a huge hit. Entertainment Weekly critic Ken Tucker described the series as "the ongoing chronicle of four genially vile, mitten–wearing eight–year–olds," and asserted that it "has replaced Beavis and Butt–head as America's premiere gross national product." Despite the success, Graden left to form his own production company.

Brian Graden Productions was a short–lived venture, however: in 1997 its principal was contacted by a head–hunting firm putting out feelers on behalf of a major cable enterprise. The channel was MTV, and Graden was hired in August of 1997; four months later he was named executive vice president in charge of programming. At the time, MTV was flagging in the ratings, and relying on a raucous dating game show called Singled Out, hosted by actor Chris Hardwick and former Playboy centerfold Jenny McCarthy, to lure viewers nightly. Graden went to work, easing Singled Out to the door and bringing in Canadian prankster Tom Green and his on–camera stunts that usually involved an innocent bystander or animal body parts. Graden also greenlighted Total Request Live, a type of live on–air jukebox that became a top ratings grabber with the after–school pre–teen and tween crowd, and Jackass, a stunt show that incited controversy even in the halls of Congress when younger viewers began imitating its sometimes–dangerous pranks.

In 2000, Graden was promoted to president of programming for MTV and MTV2, its video–only sister channel, and ratings for MTV continued to improve considerably under his watch. Nearly all of the shows lured new viewers, and kept previous ones tuned in as well. For 19 quarters straight, the station was No. 1 in cable ratings with 12–to 24–year–old viewers. His biggest success during this two–year executive slot was landing The Osbournes, a reality–TV show centered around the Beverly Hills household of rock star Ozzy Osbourne and his family. Graden came up with the idea for the show after Osbourne and his wife, Sharon, appeared in a segment of Cribs, the MTV show that gave viewers a look inside the homes—down to the refrigerators and closets—of their favorite performers.

The Osbournes became a huge hit for MTV after its debut in the spring of 2002, with ratings spiking 57 percent for the nights it aired; some of the weekly episodes lured an audience of five million—phenomenal numbers in the cable industry. Even President George W. Bush admitted to being a fan of the show. Cultural pundits from across the spectrum weighed in on why the show was so entrancing. "What MTV has done right," remarked Time writer James Poniewozik, "is a case study in what TV often does wrong. The Osbournes is the oldest thing on TV since the test pattern: a nuclear family that eats meals together, shares its problems (even if every third word is bleeped) and survives wacky scenarios."

In early 2002, Graden was named president of entertainment for both MTV and its spin–off, VH1, which essentially gave him double duties at both. VH1 was originally launched as a less–boisterous alternative to MTV's youth–oriented fare, aimed at the baby–boomer generation, and had come into its own in the 1990s with interesting original programming, such as Behind the Music and Pop–Up Video. When Graden took over, however, Behind the Music was daily fare for the channel, and it had lost record numbers of viewers. In one year, ratings plummeted 20 percent alone. That sent advertising revenues into a tailspin, and Graden was brought in to do for VH1 what he had at MTV.

Taking over at VH1, Graden reshuffled the creative management and okayed a raft of new shows and specials. One reality–show concept, based on the life of newlyweds Liza Minnelli and David Gest, was slated to premiere in October of 2002, but fell quietly by the wayside; the couple separated months later amidst allegations of spousal abuse and financial misdeeds. Graden had better luck, however, with specials like 25 Greatest Fads and an ongoing series, I Love the '80s, each episode of which singled out the music, movie, and sartorial trends for a specific year in that decade. "VH1 should act like a pop–culture magazine, like US Weekly or People, " he told Romano in a Broadcasting & Cable interview. "Whenever we put on quasi–current specials, they do disproportionately well."

Graden is regularly hailed in entertainment–industry sources as a genius for reviving MTV. Daily Variety journalist Melissa Grego once termed him the "MTV content king," while Broadcasting & Cable 's Romano called him "a development machine, willing to take ideas from almost anyone at MTV and relentless on keeping up with pop culture." Even his boss, MTV president Van Toffler, claimed that "Brian's got the best creative instincts in TV today," Toffler told Mediaweek writer Becky Ebenkamp. "His other head is like that of a 20–year–old boy or girl. He pushes his people to be open to ideas from the creative community or anywhere it bubbles up. He's not that arrogant executive who feels his ideas are better than everyone else's." Graden claimed it was a simple formula that made his career thrive via groundbreaking new television fare. "I believe in constantly being open and never thinking you know too much," he told Rutenberg in the New York Times not long after taking over at VH1. "Sometimes the good ideas are the ones that borrow nothing from the world before them. If somebody came in a year ago and pitched Ozzy Osbourne as the next big thing, on paper nobody would have bought that."

Graden, who is openly gay, has earned high marks for using his position at MTV to help raise public awareness of social issues via its public–service messages, specials, and shows. One of them was Flipped, a short–lived series that presented "poignant social messages with sometimes graphic and unsettling effects," asserted Boston Herald writer Mike Saucier. "The show arranges role reversals for parents and teens, cops and gangsters, bullies and the bullied, and plays them out. In one episode, a girl who rails against fat people is transformed into a 200–pound woman." Graden told Saucier in the same article that " Flipped is by far my favorite show in the network right now. It made these topics come alive." Another outstanding moment in Graden's career came in early 2001 when MTV aired Anatomy of a Hate Crime, a film about the 1998 slaying of Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard, and then scrolled the names of hate–crime victims at the bottom of the screen for the next 17 hours. That programming decision earned him kudos that year from the Advocate, the politically minded journal of gay and lesbian life in America that issues an annual honor list, as well as the Tom Stoddard National Role Model Award at PrideFest America in 2002.

Despite his keen sense for what brings in viewers, Graden is more pragmatic about mapping out his own life and career. He claims to set few career goals for himself. "At some point I'll grow out of it," he told the New York Times 's Rutenberg about his MTV post, "and I'll just program VH1." When Rutenberg inquired what might follow that, Graden asserted, "I'll go program the AARP [American Association of Retired Persons] channel." Such attitudes extended to his personal life as well. "After planning all these things that I should do, like get married and get a job, all failed, and I decided never to have plans after that," he said in the interview with Epstein in the Advocate. "I have absolutely no idea. I just want to keep being true to the moment."



Advocate, May 23, 2000, p. 76; August 14, 2001, p. 82.

Boston Herald, February 14, 2002, p. 46.

Broadcasting & Cable, February 3, 2003, p. 13; September 8, 2003, p. 40.

Daily Variety, January 24, 2002, p. 1; April 18, 2002, p. 3; May 21, 2002, p. 11; July 25, 2002, p. 1.

Electronic Media, September 29, 1997, p. 44.

Entertainment Weekly, January 16, 1998, p. 53.

Houston Chronicle, July 14, 2000, p. 1.

Mediaweek, October 14, 1991, p. 18; April 19, 1999, p. 10; July 29, 2002, p. 4; October 20, 2003, p. 28.

Multichannel News, July 17, 2000, p. 62.

New York Times, May 20, 2002.

St. Petersburg Times, July 10, 2000, p. 1D.

Time, April 15, 2002, p. 64.

Variety, December 22, 1997, p. 28; October 8, 2001, p. A2.


"Brian Graden," Biography Resource Center Online, Gale Group, 2003.

Carol Brennan

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