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MTV's reality-show whiz plans departure

Brian Graden, whose programming helped shaped pop culture, is looking to move outside TV. His contract expires in December.

June 16, 2009|Meg James and Joe Flint

Brian Graden, the MTV executive who shaped pop culture by shepherding such boundary-breaking hits as "South Park," "The Osbournes" and "Pimp My Ride" onto television, is leaving when his contract expires in December.

The executive, although not a household name, had an influential job overseeing programming for several Viacom Inc. signature cable channels: MTV, VH1, Country Music Television and Logo. His position will not be filled, MTV said. It attributed the move to Graden's desire to pursue interests outside TV, including writing books and musicals.

"We were fortunate enough to have Brian for a dozen years," said Van Toffler, MTV Networks' president. "I don't know anyone else in the business who has a track record better than his."

Graden said Monday that his job had become more focused on business and less on the creative side.

"Every two or three years, there was a new chapter to start, whether it was VH1, CMT or Logo," he said. "It didn't appear that there was going to be something new, interesting or dynamic for me to work on."

Graden, 46, had been the darling of MTV. Although the network had been moving away from its roots of music videos to reality programming before Graden came aboard, once he was there he kicked it into high gear. Jessica Simpson, Lauren Conrad, and Heidi and Spencer Pratt all became household names during Graden's reign.

The departure comes at an awkward time for MTV, which seems to have lost its way as the zeitgeist network for younger viewers who are just as likely to be texting friends or spending time on Facebook as watching TV.

Many of Viacom's cable networks, known for their experimental programming, have seen their popularity fade in recent years. MTV has been hit hard as its heavy load of reality shows such as "The Hills" and "My Super Sweet 16," which revels in the excesses of pampered youths, seem out of sync in more austere times.

Younger viewers are "the hardest and most challenging demographic to target," said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, executive vice president at ad agency StarCom Entertainment. Trends swiftly change, "and you can't rest on your hits because those MTV shows don't sit on the shelf that long."

Prime-time ratings for MTV were down about 20% last season, including in key younger demographics that have long been the channel's selling card.

Caraccioli-Davis said MTV was slow to recognize that younger viewers, those under age 30, are more optimistic than their snarkier cousins of Generation X.

"This is the Obama generation, and their values are more like their grandparents' than that of their parents," she said.

MTV's programming, accused over the years of defects including misogyny and materialism, has begun also to reflect a more aspirational vibe. Among its new shows are "Made," a series about how dedication and hard work can make "dreams come true" and "T.I.'s Road to Redemption."

Advertising on Viacom's channels has fallen at a steeper rate than at other cable networks. Media research firm SNL Kagan said advertising at MTV would decline 15% to an estimated $846 million this year from $1 billion in 2005.

Viacom has been under pressure to cut costs, and Graden was earning about $7 million a year. It has shed hundreds of jobs, mostly at MTV.

MTV is also struggling to keep up with new technologies beyond the Internet. The network used to rely on numerous reruns of signature shows such as "The Hills" to generate ratings. But now viewers record the shows, and the reruns are drawing paltry audiences.

Although Graden was one of the most senior executives at MTV Networks and had a lot of clout over what went on the screen, he often brushed up against those running the individual networks over programming issues.

Now, each of the four network managers will have responsibility over programming on the channels they oversee, reducing tensions when things go wrong.


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