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Interview: Brian Graden

Brian Graden is President of MTV Programming.

How much effort and resources do you put behind market research?

We put an immense amount of resources behind market research. But it's a little bit nontraditional. It's not just a bunch of quantitative data, which I think is relatively useless. We do a lot more from the point of view of what it's like to be 19 or 21 years old. We'll do focus groups where we'll bring 12 trend-setting kids together to talk about things over coffee, or other qualitative exercises like this to find out, what are the emergent trends? What do they think is cool? What are the forces that shape them?

Why?

The implicit promise of MTV has always been that we see things honestly from your POV. And we're not trying to necessarily be adults who program to somebody who's 19. But we're trying to be a service that exists as an honest reflection of your world, and that's our covenant. Remembering back to when you were 19, anybody talking to you from the vantage point of a 40-year-old, you just don't hear the same way. So I think that's the main reason, from the business point of view. And then, just from the sociological point of view, I think it's really important that that voice be reflected honestly somewhere on the media spectrum.

You have the most marketed group of teens,young adults in the history of the world. These consumers are so brand savvy, they know exactly if they're being hyped to It's interesting that you use those words "looking back," because we were just with a producer at WB talking about his show. And he said it's a memory play. It's a bunch of us who've been through high school. Do you define yourself against that model in some ways?

Yes. I would say that we do define ourselves against those models -- shows that are obviously written by 35-year-old writers remembering what it was like to be 17, 18, and 19. They do a very good job, and very often they'll overlay the dialogue of now or the vernacular. But the world is just a different place. And the more time that I spend with young adults, the more I realize that even though we seem the same and we bond and we talk, their experience is very far removed from my experience. And I think that's what MTV tries to capture.

How would you characterize their experience? What's different about it?

Well, there are a lot of factors. You've got to remember they've grown up in a time of wild media fragmentation and information. So they're very used to being in control of their universe, being able to access anything, anywhere, anytime--which does change your mindset.

I actually went outside and played. Play is a whole different thing when you are 15 at this point. You're expected to create and construct your own realities. That's one of the things that I think is very different. It has led to new kinds of social experiences. Whereas we used to interact perhaps more face-to-face, e-mail is a wonderfully effective kind of communication. . . . It's a different kind of socializing.

One of the things we find out about this generation is they're very empowered by this combination of technology--knowing that they know something about it their parents don't--but also by these economic good times we've had for ten years. When you think about it, somebody 18 has never really known the world without a booming economy and the expectation that it always goes on. And their parents have been shaped like this. My parents lived in the 1970s. They had a different mindset. So those from this new generation pretty much expect they can go out with this technology and make millions of dollars and do just about anything they want, which is both a great thing and probably a somewhat naïve thing.

Another thing we've seen is that their parents have moved up on the heroes list. It used to be number five or six when you'd asked them to list their heroes. Now, very often, the parents are number one. So you have a generation of post-divorce-trend parents trying, perhaps, to invest a little more and do a better job. I think that speaks volumes about this particular generation.

And they're very much into expressing their own taste. . . . They have trended toward tiny personal expressions, whether it's through mysticism, or different kinds of spirituality, that they can find a personal expression and a kind of serenity. They accept diversity much more than we did.

There used to be this protected sphere of childhood. What's happened to that?

You're right. There used to be a protected sphere of childhood, where someone was exposed to only what we thought would suit them at 13 or 15 or 20. And the truth is that there is so much media, there is an infinite capacity for the internet to share all points of view on things. Whether it's good or bad, time will tell and generations will tell.

. . .What you find is a surprising resourcefulness to be able to process, because this is not a phenomenon that hit them when they were 15; it's been the reality since they were five. On the other hand, you see--I don't want to say a resentment--but there is sometimes an undercurrent that says, "I'm 13. Do I really need to be running around with my Palm Pilot worrying about all of these things I hear about on "Dawson's Creek?"

The teenager that you describe strikes me as someone who is harder to capture and harder to hold, as a consumer and as a viewer. Is that the case?

Yes, absolutely. The consumer who is 18 years old is infinitely harder to hold, and to even get their attention in the first case.

How do you do it?

. . . If you sign up to work at MTV as an executive, you pretty much sign up to care deeply about what it's like to be 21 years old, and to see the world from their point of view and to celebrate the art that they celebrate--celebrate the musicians.

That's a great answer. We were just talking about how you capture and keep these material creatures out there. You used the phrase,"You have to immerse yourself."

To have any chance of having a long-term relationship with this consumer, you have to immerse yourself in their reality, in their music, in their art, in the things that they read. I think only then could you ever create and develop other media they'd possibly be interested in. . . . If you see it or approach it any other way, as an anonymous face with some target market, then I think you will fail.

How is the intelligence that you gather in Todd Cunningham's arena transmitted to the people who make programming? How does that work?

How you use market research is absolutely key, and it's actually the place where you can screw it up. It's one thing to gather all this data; it's quite another to use it to make a product. And there's a tendency to say, "I have this data and the data tells me that kids like yellow. Therefore, I'll make a yellow show." And to me that is sort of death. Our theory here is that we will immerse ourselves in the lives of our viewers. Some through reports, some through studies, some through just hanging out with young adults.

Once we have that information and have a world perspective, we throw it away. We put it in the drawer. We forget about it forever. And we go out and live lives and try to come in contact with creative people, people of that demo who have a voice like Tom Green or who have a perspective on a generation like Carson Daly. We find the talent that we recognize as being consistent with how young adults see their life, and just let that talent do their magic, let them develop as they would develop and forget all about the research. Maybe we'll come to it right before we put something on TV. But the creative process still has to be the creative process, and you've got to leave it alone.

In essence, you're trying to reshape your own minds along the lines of their minds.

Yes.

And then exercise your mind.

Yes. That's it. Yes, and then go out and exercise our minds to find talent, to find projects.

What is at stake here for MTV? What does it mean for MTV not to be in step with kids?

I think it would be disastrous if MTV were not in step with young adults, because we have said that is our beachhead, that's our brand benchmark. And it's an incredibly risky brand proposition, because you're sort of saying, "I'm always going to try to stay on the leading edge of the most fickle demographic ever." And that's where we're going to plant ourselves as a brand that hopes to have life for 20 years. Very few brands would do that. And yet, somehow, over 20 years, long before I was a part of this equation, they have managed to do it here at MTV.

As a consumer, there's been a change in the teenager over the course of the last 10 years or 15 years. What is the recognition of the power of the teen consumer now?

I think even five years ago, believe it or not, Madison Avenue would not really have recognized teens or even 18-to-24s as a viable consumer block on their own. I can remember a day when shows . . . with humongous teen numbers or 18-to-24 numbers, like "My So-Called Life" on ABC get canceled because that's not viable. One of the great things about this information age is that with so many channels, you can say, "My business is 12-to-15," or "My business is 21-to-24." And you can make a business out of that, which is great.

As a result, you have the most marketed group of teens and young adults ever in the history of the world. These consumers are so brand-savvy that they know exactly if they're being hyped to, if they're being marketed to. They can see right through an ad that is just empty hype. At the same time, they don't resent brands. If you're Levi's or Pepsi or one of these brands, that's okay, as long as you're cool. Probably ten years ago that wasn't the case.

There was a kind of anti-consumerism Nirvana effect. That's gone now?

Yes. For the most part, the anti-consumerism that we saw in the early 1990s is pretty much evaporated. Like I say, brands are "in" now. They're cool. They'll see through a brand that tries to be something it isn't, but if you pull it off, they're there.

Is that because the companies have learned how to circumvent that anti-consumerism? They've learned how to be on the same side in some ways?

Some of them have. Some of the savvy ones have learned how to position themselves clearly on the other side of the line with the consumer. But I think for the most part, it's just a reaction to the fact that there is so much marketing across so many media that young adults have done what they always do. They've co-opted it and made it their own.

Is MTV profitable?

MTV is profitable, yes.

Extremely profitable?

Yes, it's a profitable business, absolutely.

And it's doing relatively well now versus in the past?

It's been a healthy business, really, I think, pretty much for the last 10 or 15 years. Ratings-wise, there was a period about three years ago . . . when there was a perception that MTV had lost its way a bit with the young consumer. Ratings were down somewhat. Some of the trend studies said that we were less cool, less creative than before. We immersed ourselves in research about the fall of 1997 and have been able to turn that around to where now our rankings . . . are way, way up and our ratings are their highest in their history. So now we're in a very healthy place that we weren't necessarily in three years ago.

Modesty aside, that's coincidental with you coming in as programming chief. What is the new idea that you've brought in?

We see ourselves as champion of artists.  And whether we like it or not, the themes artists sometimes choose to embrace reflect sometimes views we would never agree with. Well, there were several. And as with any journey, a lot of it's planned, and a lot of it's accidental, so you have to spread the credit around to a wide group of people who helped turn it around here. One of the things that we caught onto early was that this group has controlled their own media reality. They have had a remote control the entire time they've been alive. They have a PC that they are used to getting anything they want out of it. A channel that just passively presented videos didn't work for today's consumers. So we created shows like "Total Request Live," where they choose the videos and they see themselves on screen. We created shows like "Fanatic" where, instead of one of our celebrities doing the interview, they got to be in the driver's seat and do the interview. So we did a lot of things like this to make the channel far more participatory.

And the other thing realized is that the music video, while an entirely novel form of music television when I was growing up, was no longer novel to this generation. So we had to package this experience with shows like "Making The Video" and shows that celebrated the video as a different kind of television.

There's also been a striking edge to some of your programs. Was there a need to make programming pop to get the attention of the kids? Was that a conscious thing to have to do?

The programming absolutely had to pop. And the word "edge," while it's loaded with implications, has always been an important part of the brand promise of MTV. And certainly things like "Celebrity Death Match" and Tom Green and some of the other things that we've done have received due attention as edgy programming. One thing we've tried not to do is to shock for shock's sake. There are definitely shows that are doing that now, and I don't have to name them for you to figure out what they are. That's not the right brand promise for MTV, and I don't think it's right exactly for this demo. So we try to find a voice that's organic and real and deadly honest, a voice that may seem like it's pushing the limits sometime. But never one that just shocks for shock's sake, because that's cheap and not clever and not good.

Let's separate boys and girls. Boys are absolutely fascinating right now. What do they want in music and programming generally?

. . . It's absolutely true that boys will prefer the Papa Roaches and the Korns and the Limp Bizkits and these kinds of things. More boys watch "Celebrity Death Match" than watch our other shows. And we are absolutely living in this huge time of teen pop music that is driven primarily by females. So you've got the Backstreets and the Britneys and Christina and 'N Sync. Shows like "Total Request Live" and "Fanatic" are definitely much higher on a girl's radar screen than some of the others. So that's sort of the generic difference we see.

What's going on with this movement of rap metal, with the movement of Eminem? These acts are not only popular--they're huge. They're coming out with a pitch of attitude that's never been seen in popular music before. Is this tapping into something that's there among boys? What's going on?

This is something I think about a lot because when you're in a position of being of MTV, you receive 200 videos a week to look at. And I think that that tends to be about the first place where certain ideas and certain thoughts of a generation begin to show up. You're absolutely right to say that . . . the edge, the attitude, is expressing something, and it's an undercurrent that is harder, that seems to be angry.

What's interesting to me about it is that, for every generation, there is an undercurrent of anger and the idea that, "We can do this better. Give us our shot at the world." In past lives, it's been channeled into things like the civil rights movement or the Vietnam War. Now, times seem to be good. We're telling the consumer, in fact everyone, that everything's at your fingertips. We're living in a boom era, and yet this anger is there. I think what you have to do is look and say, "What is it about their lives that . . . is leading to this expression of anger?"

It's interesting that you mention Vietnam, because this anger does seem a little bit undirected, unfocused. That's one thing that you always hear--that it expresses itself randomly.

Take Woodstock 1999. Woodstock 1999 turned into a riot. People were burning things. No one in the aftermath could really explain why. And to say that it was over expensive Diet Cokes or the temperature being 100, is not to go deep enough to really figure out what is this about.

You're obviously a very thoughtful person. I have to ask you, do you worry about fanning this flame?

Yes. At MTV, we are absolutely in a constant internal discussion about our role in the media. One thing that is true now that wasn't true 10 years ago is that 10 years ago, we might have been the only proprietor of a certain kind of art or a certain kind of product. Now, in this particular age, there are 20 channels playing music videos on television. There are endless channels programming for a young audience. On the computer you can get access to absolutely anything musical and otherwise. I worry less about what we're perpetrating and more about just finding the right line for ourselves. And it's a very fluid discussion; what is true today may not be true six months from now.

And as MTV, I don't feel we can ever stop having the discussion. There's a tendency to say, "Well, we found our line. Let's move on." But you can't do that, because culture is always shifting. It is a non-stop discussion, because we take the responsibility very seriously to not put dangerous things out there. At the same time, the reason the audience trusts us in the first place is because we don't censor. We present their art in the most honest way. . . . We won't cross violence lines. We won't cross certain language lines. But otherwise, we will let the art express itself as purely as possible.

Well, let's take an artist like Eminem. He may be the most popular and most controversial figure at the moment. You not only went with his videos--but you really gave him a platform. Tell me about the internal decision there. Why did you decide to go that way?

Around Eminem, what you have to remember is that his second album had a different tenor than his first album. There is definitely a through line, and you can see the progression. When we decided and planned. . . we had not heard the second album in its entirety. What we had was a very sanitized, friendly, saturated video that was very much targeted right at a young consumer, and that video was perfectly innocent. It passed all of our standards in terms of violence and language. And away we go.

It's only after we had a chance to really listen to the album and we had a chance to sit down with lots of other groups . . . that we began to have second thoughts in pulling back the promotion. And we did, in fact, pull a lot of the promotion back. And we decided we don't want to censor the artist. The video's going to play on the channel if the audience chooses to have it played on "Total Request Live." But we did feel a responsibility to express the other side of the controversy. So we did this half-hour special on hate lyrics. I think it's infinitely better for us as MTV to get out both sides. . . . That's a better role for MTV to have than to simply say, "Let's not show this and let's not talk about it," because that's disingenuous.

Is it fair to say that you may not have done the two-week thing had you known the full album?

Yes. Hindsight is always 20/20. I don't know that. That would sound like a cop-out if I just said we wouldn't of, but certainly the picture became clearer over the ensuing weeks. And like I said, since the discussion is fluid at MTV, we weren't afraid to say, "You know what? Let's pull back on promotion, and let's tell the other side of this story."

You have wonderful documentaries about the issues that are raised by the rest of your programming. You don't see yourselves as moral guardians. You can't act in that role.

I would say that MTV works on two levels. We see ourselves as champion of artists. And whether we like it or not, the themes that artists sometimes choose to embrace reflect sometimes anger, sometimes views that we would never agree with. For the most part, we aren't going to censor the artist, beyond standard television network standards. As MTV, we do believe that we have some broader role in educating consumers, in getting behind social campaigns like our campaign to vote, our campaign to stop violence. So we tried to make both coexist on the channel. Artists can express themselves, but so can we.

I have to ask you about one other show, "Undressed." What is the genesis of that show, and what was the idea there?

The genesis of "Undressed" is interesting. We had a show four years ago called "Singled Out," which was a very hot show. And it ran its course. We said, "We have to be talking to our audience about relationships. Somehow we have to have that reflected on our air." We'd like to do it in a way that isn't "Singled Out" and isn't some sort of cheesy game show that was great in its day, but let's move on.

And at about the same time, Roland Joffé came in and pitched the show "Undressed." And his pitch was really interesting, because he is fascinated by these small conversational moments that ultimately really say volumes about a relationship. His pitch was that you don't get honest until you get home at night and you start to get in bed. Once you . . . get undressed--which was his metaphor--that's when you start to get real.

. . . When we saw "Undressed," we realized that he went to a place that was deadly honest and that dealt with things like you would deal with if you were 21 years old. Most of the situations are organically provided by writers who were in that demo, situations that they either lived or friends had lived. So we made the decision simply to put it on at 11:00 because it was perhaps racier than we originally envisioned. At the same time, that was the artistic vision. It was appropriate for after 11. And it's certainly true to the reality of what it's like to navigate sex and dating for this audience today.

So your assumption is that kids are not watching this.

That's our assumption, yes.

Can you make that assumption? Can you know? And if it is doesn't turn out to be true, does it matter?

It's a great topic for debate. It is a standard that many networks follow. There's a reason that "NYPD Blue" is on at 10. There's a reason South Park is on at 10. There's a reason "The Man Show" is on at 10:30. There's a reason we went to 11 o'clock with "Undressed." Is it a valid reason? It seems to be, if you just look at the math. There's a much smaller percentage of people watching at the younger end of our demo at that time period than at any other during the day. So the math does bear it out.

The other racy program on your air that opened my eyes was the "Spring Break" coverage. That isn't on late at night. That's on right now as far as I know.

Right. First of all, I never had a good spring break, so I'm not the one to talk about this. But the interesting thing about "Spring Break" is, as it is, it's something that is a rite of passage. And when you're 20 years old, you don't do it 52 weeks a year. You go for one week of your life and you let loose and that is the experience. So MTV very much approaches it in the same way, which is that we do not do "Spring Break" 52 weeks a year--to see a repeat of it is pretty rare. We indulge it one weekend a year, in March, when they're going through spring break, and we do it as honestly as we can. We have not moved our standard in the last 10 years. If you look back at "Spring Break" tapes from 10 years ago, they look just like it does today. It's a ritual. It's a rite of passage. It happens once a year. And we sort of leave it at that.

I wanted to ask you to just take off your hat as an MTV programmer and just be yourself. I don't know if you have kids.

I don't, no.

You look like you're about my age. Looking out on the culture, do you see a kind of coarsening in the culture generally? Other people don't see it that way, and I'm wondering where you fall on that continuum. When you look out at the culture the kids are growing up in now, how do you describe it? Does it bother you at all?

It's interesting. Even though I work at MTV and it's not unusual for me to have a Janet Jackson CD and ride my skateboard around the office here or scooter, I have crossed the generational line. I am starting to see the world more like someone who's approaching 40 than someone who's 20. I can't help but be worried that we are throwing so much at young adults so fast. And there is no amount of preparation or education or even love that you could give a child to be ready.

That said, I think I'm just a person talking who's getting older, because my parents would have undoubtedly said the same thing about the world I grew up in. And young adults don't really see it that way. They don't express particular confusion over it. They don't express that they're being overwhelmed by it. So, I have an opinion. It's probably wrong.

We actually shot a focus group and we heard about this word "trendography." What is going on with the focus groups that you guys do with kids in New York?

At MTV, obviously, we love and embrace each new trend no matter how silly and no matter how fast it's going to fade away--that's part of who we are and part of what we enjoy. But the reason it's an important part of the research is because it goes beyond just cultural fun. If somebody's embracing a henna tattoo, which was big a year ago with Madonna, it's not simply because tattoos are cool. It usually represents some underlying theme. What we try to do is get at the underlying themes, what's present in their life that makes them embrace whatever silly trends or great trends they're into at the moment.

MTV recently acquired wrestling. Why?

MTV is a part of a broader company now that owns CBS and TNN and MTV, et cetera. We actually together acquired wrestling. The primary components of wrestling are going to be on TNN and on UPN. We are doing one hour a week on Sunday nights. It is huge with our audience at program levels that I could have never imagined. It is the hottest thing going among males 18-to-24 and, in fact, among teen boys. While we don't want that to be the defining element of our business, it was okay to be in the game. Music's still on our air 24-7.

It was simply too big to ignore.

That's what it was.

What is that about?

Why is wrestling so big? You know what's interesting? I went to see some wrestling, and had been going in the last year as we thought about this. And what's interesting is that there is a huge camp factor. And it's openly much more about storytelling and soap opera if you watch it. Now, that's not to say that the line hasn't been crossed. I think it has, and luckily the press has responded when the line has been crossed. I hope, whether it's on our air or someone else's air, that will continue to happen in the media and in the dialogue. But that said, most people get the joke. While I was there, one of the matches was getting too violent and the audience booed that person because that was not a part of the cultural norms of that environment. . . . So I think that most people get the joke.

How do you decide what music to program on MTV? What is the point of decision? How does that work?

There are about 15 of us who live and breathe music . . . and we literally look at all the music every week. We do have our standard research. We know what the audience likes. We know everything that's on the charts everywhere. And nine times out of our ten, our instincts will be perfectly in step with that. And then on occasion we, because we're on MTV, will go out on a limb and say, "You know what? There's no evidence that this artist is going to break yet, but we're just going to go out on a limb and make . . . the artist buzz-worthy."

You really have the power to make these artists--not only to put turbo boosters under their career--but really to make people who otherwise wouldn't.

Yes. MTV's an absolutely incredibly powerful medium. But for me, I think that the power we have is overestimated. That's my belief. . . . No matter how much I like it, if it's not meant to connect, it's not going to. So if the artist doesn't have talent or the producing entity behind the artist doesn't have talent, you're not going to see a connection, no matter how many times we bang the video it doesn't happen.

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