Earlier this summer, when Brian Graden announced in an email to colleagues that he would be stepping down as the president of entertainment at MTV Networks at the end of the year, he didn’t cite the reasons typically invoked by media executives on their way out the door. He wasn’t starting a Huffington Post–meets–something-or-other Internet company, nor would he be founding a nebulous PR consulting firm, nor would he be retreating to academia to meditate on the future of media.
He was leaving MTV Networks, he explained, to finish writing a musical. “I know you’re shocked,” Mr. Graden wrote to his colleagues. “A gay man who loves musicals.” Also: He’d be writing two books.
“If you look at the shows we have all created together … you can feel a tangible fascination with people on the brink of their next great adventure in life,” wrote Mr. Graden. “Over the last year, I woke up to the fact that I’m a character in my own personal reality show, and this is my time for that next transformation.”
Roughly two months later, on a Wednesday morning in mid-August, Mr. Graden, who is 46, settled into a table at the London on West 54th. His latest journey in life, he said, began unexpectedly. A few years ago, he had to come up with a birthday present for a rich boyfriend. What do you give a guy who has everything? When he was growing up in the ’70s in the small town of Hillsboro, Ill., he had played keyboard in a cover band called Ace Oxygen & the Ozones. Now he decided to write his boyfriend a song.
Afterward, he kept going. “I got a Mac and got like 200 songs done,” said Mr. Graden. “I started thinking this would be kind of a cool musical, knowing full well that I have no idea what I’m doing and don’t have the proper training.”
This is the fun phase of being the cute girl at prom right now in Hollywood, where everyone wants to throw a lot of money at you to keep making TV and film.
Also, he had a career that kept him busy. As the entertainment chief of MTV networks music channels, he was overseeing the creative and business developments at multiple music and lifestyle channels, including MTV, MTV2, VH1, CMT and LOGO. At any one time, he had dozens if not hundreds of other people’s creative visions to try to nourish and grow and sustain in a harsh media environment. His personal creative impulses could wait.
Mr. Graden, who is a bottle-blond with an intense air of hyper-attentiveness, explained that he took his next step forward, musically, on his birthday. As a surprise present, his boyfriend at the time arranged for Mr. Graden’s two favorite playwrights, Liesel Reinhart and Steven Seagle, to assess the songs he had already written. A month or so later, they returned. “They had listened to everything and thought up story lines,” said Mr. Graden. “It took off from there.”
In January of 2009, Mr. Graden and his collaborators hosted their first listening party for their nascent musical, Limbo (“10 Defiant Hearts: 1 Unimaginable Decision”). They hired a cast of actors, invited some 200 guests to Mr. Graden’s house in Los Angeles and plied everyone with alcohol. When Mr. Graden heard the songs for the first time, he felt overjoyed. The next day, like hundreds of aspirational TV characters before him, he woke up determined to leave his day job. But how?
Shortly thereafter, Mr. Graden met with friend and media mogul Barry Diller at the IAC headquarters for some career advice. “He didn’t understand what all the drama was about,” said Mr. Graden. “He said, ‘Write down what you want to do. That’s your job.’”
Over the years, Mr. Graden had crafted countless development memos, mapping out various strategic plans for a range of TV channels in need of guidance, programming strategies and mission statements. Now, it was Mr. Graden’s chance to turn his executive skills inward. He wrote a roughly nine-page memo, mapping out a framework that would maximize his odds of creative success.
Thus began Brian Graden’s redevelopment of Brian Graden.
“I wrote it all down, and I sort of backed into what my life would look like if writing for three hours a day and doing songs two days a week and making a TV show was my job,” said Mr. Graden.
He said he had already begun work on his nonfiction book, Phenomenon, which would investigate the business and artistry of “hit-making.” The book will recount his own experiences in television, including his role in developing the likes of South Park, Total Request Live, Jackass, and The Newlyweds. He will also be interviewing friends in Hollywood about their experiences feeding the zeitgeist. He plans to include sections on American Idol and Survivor.
The takeaway lessons, Mr. Graden said, should be applicable to the business world at large. He recounted a story about a friend who helped to create green ketchup for Heinz. “That was a huge explosion, and then 18 months later, every color was done and it was over,” said Mr. Graden. “There are so many businesses with arcs like that. It occurred to me that increasingly, everyone is in the hit business.”
In September, Mr. Graden will officially begin shopping the project to publishers. Depending on how the writing goes, Mr. Graden is also tentatively planning a second book, Phenomena, which will look at hit-making in a more spiritual framework.
Somewhere in the mix, Mr. Graden will likely recount his own dramatic bildungsroman—the story of how a hyper-sensitive kid, the elder of two brothers from a modest farming family in the Midwest, went on to become a top general in the cutthroat business of American entertainment.
MR. GRADEN HAD JUST graduated from Oral Roberts University and settled down in Tulsa, Okla., when he had a breakthrough. He was working as an accountant-consultant and was engaged to a woman. He felt trapped. Everything was wrong. Then one day, he was flipping through Newsweek and read an article about Harvard Business School. It was the ’80s. M.B.A.’s were cool. Mr. Graden saw his way out. “Business school is what set me on my creative path,” said Mr. Graden.
Last year, Mr. Graden wrote a chapter about his childhood for a book called Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing up Gay in America. But in the world of media executives, Mr. Graden is perhaps better known for his periodic, long-form studies dissecting the multi-variable calculus of TV development. In the spring of 2002, while serving as the president of programming for MTV and MTV2, Mr. Graden agreed to assess sister network VH1, which was struggling. Three weeks later, Mr. Graden banged out his magnum opus of memo writing, a gripping analysis of a complex system gone awry and a lucid prescription on how to fix it, which would seem to bode well for his future as a business writer.
Over the span of the 41-page document, Mr. Graden suggests more than 200 specific recommendations for how to revive VH1’s sagging fortunes. Along the way, he provides a mathematical model for the tracking and forecasting of ratings progress; unleashes a battery of snappy programming criticisms (“Watching Kid Rock serve French Fries holds up for about 60 seconds before it feels slightly desperate”); provides a realpolitik assessment of VH1’s schedule; and coins some nice turns of phrase (“in this ‘behind the scenes of everything’ age”…). The writing is at once rigorous and funny—a highly readable mix of quantitative and qualitative reasoning, playfully foxtrotting between the right and left hemispheres of Mr. Graden’s brain.
Several months later, Viacom put Mr. Graden in charge of restructuring VH1. Under his guidance, the channel took off. And some seven and a half years later, the memo lives on as something of an underground classic in the development community—the type of thing an up-and-coming VP would keep tucked away on his office bookshelf and turn to occasionally for inspiration.
One of Mr. Graden’s many devotees is Matt Stone. In the mid-’90s, Mr. Graden was working as a development executive at Foxlab studios when he became impressed with two young animators. He famously hired Mr. Stone and Trey Parker to create a video Christmas card, which gave rise to the viral hit “Jesus vs. Santa.” When Fox later passed on Mr. Stone and Mr. Parker’s animated series, Mr. Graden left the studio to help steer South Park into creation.
Years later, Mr. Stone is one of the many people in Hollywood carefully tracking Mr. Graden’s career transformation. “Nobody has bitched more about studio people over the years than Trey and me,” said Mr. Stone. “But eventually you realize that a great network president isn’t the same as someone managing a tire factory. It’s that combination of an amazing analytical brain, and also being able to put yourself in creative people’s shoes. It’s a skill set that Brian possesses on an almost guru level.”
Lisa Sherman, who Mr. Graden hired to lead Viacom’s LGBT channel, LOGO, concurred. “He has a degree from Harvard Business School and yet has the most incredible creative instincts,” she said. “That combination in one person is pretty rare. He gives you guidance and then lets you follow your heart.”
“He gives more than lip service to the idea and the ideal of happiness,” added Mr. Stone. “When we were working together, he would always say that you have to set things up so that you’ll be long-term happy.”
So can Mr. Graden manage to follow his own blueprint?
He said he plans to keep his hand in the management game on a part-time basis. “This is the fun phase of being the cute girl at prom right now in Hollywood, where everyone wants to throw a lot of money at you to keep making TV and film,” said Mr. Graden. “I’d be kind of dumb not to take advantage of that window now.”
Recently, his name has surfaced in press reports about former NBC exec Ben Silverman’s new venture for Mr. Diller at IAC. But Mr. Graden said that when he met with Mr. Diller this past spring, no specifics were discussed. “There’s nothing in the works,” said Mr. Graden.
In the meantime, as his remaining time at MTV Networks ticks down, Mr. Graden continues to adjust to the life of developing projects on a much smaller scale. “It can take me like three hours to get down eight paragraphs,” said Mr. Graden. “But when I’m done, I’m all psyched and really proud, even though they’re tiny compared to the scope of what I did.”
Which is not to say that the transformation from development guru to developing writer is free from anxiety. Years ago, in his memo about VH1, Mr. Graden quoted Oscar Wilde: “The basis of optimism is sheer terror.” A hint of that sentiment remains in his current work.
The core character in Limbo, according to Mr. Graden, is a musician who can’t finish his musical. “Ultimately, he dies in a funny way, and wakes up in limbo,” said Mr. Graden. “We’re calling it a metaphysical comedy.”