The Reinvention of Brian Graden

Earlier this summer, when Brian Graden announced in an email to colleagues that he would be stepping down as the

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.

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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.”

The Reinvention of Brian Graden