When Brian Graden arrived at Harvard Business School in the late 1980s, he assumed he would leave there an investment banker. But his master plan changed abruptly during one job interview, when a banker asked why Graden wanted to steal the banker's job as quickly as possible.
His response, Graden realized, was hardly the one he had rehearsed. "I had a rare moment of clarity," he recalls, "and thought, 'I can't imagine anything more horrifying than being you.'"
So, instead, MTV's and VH1's programming whiz took a road much less traveled by MBA grads. He ventured out to Los Angeles so intent on working in television that he was willing to work for free. In Hollywood, a young programmer named Stephen Chao, who went on to be a top Fox and USA Cable Networks executive, agreed to give him a job, as long as Graden promised never to wear a suit again.
In the years since, Graden has earned a reputation as a programming wunderkind, with a keen understanding of what hip young viewers want to see on TV. He joined New York-based MTV in 1997 as vice president of programming, persuading MTV chief Judy McGrath to let him stay in Los Angeles.
"Everything Brian does breaks through and yet is completely in touch with the popular culture," says McGrath, now president of MTV Music Group.
The key, Graden says: "You can never become static. It is more fun to move onto something new, something you haven't tried before."
At MTV, his hit parade starts with Celebrity Death Match and Total Request Live and includes, more recently, Jackass, The Osbournes and Punk'd. Graden is a development machine, willing to take ideas from almost anyone at MTV and relentless on keeping up with pop culture.
Even though, at 40, he's out of MTV's demo, Graden is perfectly at home there. A keyboard player for a high school band, "The Ozones," he has always been obsessed with television and music. He'll sample anything, from Bravo's hit gay makeover show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy to Fox News Channel, just to see what the buzz is about.
The Hillsboro, Ill., native who graduated from a small religious college in Oklahoma is trying to extend his magic touch to VH1. When he added the then-slumping VH1 to his watch, some wondered whether he would be stretched too thin in programming both.
Not so, Graden says. "In my own journey, I was ready for a new puzzle." And he credits his inner circle, which includes MTVN vets Lois Curren, John Miller, Dave Sirulnick, Tom Calderone and Paul DeBenedittis, with keeping both nets humming.
Graden's inventive spirit dates back to his Fox days. With Chao, he toiled at Foxlab, Fox's alternative-programming unit, dreaming up shows like Studs and eventually running the unit.
His most famous discovery was South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, whom he gave $2,000 to make a video Christmas card to keep them from being poached by rivals. But when Fox passed on South Park, Graden started to get restless.
"If [Fox] was not the kind of culture where South Park could be accommodated," he says, "I questioned whether broadcast was the kind of medium where ideas could be accommodated."
He left Fox and joined Stone and Parker to create the South Parkseries. After hatching the first shows, the trio parted ways before Comedy Central debuted the series (Graden wanted to focus on his own production company).
When South Park hit big, Graden was as surprised as anyone. About three months after the premiere, he was walking through New York City's Times Square, and "South Park was everywhere, even on mugs. It was surreal."
Cable, he learned then, would be happy to accommodate his ideas. "My friends thought [cable] was a small choice" when he joined MTV. "Now, you look around, and most of the exciting television is happening on cable. I feel vindicated a little bit."