Cable Exec Has Work Cut Out

The man who's molding Logo, the new network for gays and lesbians, grew up in rural Illinois, attended Oral Roberts University and counted that cheesy keyboard solo on "Freeze Frame" as his big moment during gigs with his college band the Ozones.

At first glance, Brian Graden hardly seems too hip for the room.

But the 42-year-old Graden is one of television's busiest and most imaginative executives, already responsible for the programming on MTV, VH1 and CMT — and now Logo, which debuts Thursday.

Long in the works, Logo will initially be seen in about 10 million homes with digital cable. Unlike Here and Q, two pay-per-view, gay-oriented networks already operating, Logo will be available in homes that do not specifically order it.

Films such as "Kissing Jessica Stein" and "Philadelphia" and documentaries will fill many of Logo's first hours. The network also has a scripted series, "Noah's Arc," about a homosexual black man and his friends in Los Angeles, a reality series about opening a gay bar and the stand-up comedy series "Wisecrack."

A gay man himself, Graden had hoped to help out with Logo even before he was appointed its president.

Graden's job requires a comfort with Wall Street and Hollywood, two sides of his personality presaged by his educational choices. He went to Oral Roberts in Tulsa, Okla., with fellow band members in an ill-fated attempt to keep the Ozones alive, then later earned an MBA from Harvard University.

Seeking an internship one summer, he wore his best suit to an interview with colorful TV executive Stephen Chao. Chao said he'd hire Graden as long as he never wore a tie again, and spent the interview quizzing the young man on what he watched on TV, the music he listened to, the movies he saw.

"I came to understand that that's the essence of what you're hiring, the essence of what matters," he said.

Graden now appoints teams at MTV Networks that are immersed in the lifestyles of the audiences they are trying to reach.

The launchpad for his career came when he befriended writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone, helping them to develop "South Park."

He moved to MTV in 1997, and was the executive behind a dizzying array of hits, including "The Osbournes," "Pimp My Ride," "Jackass," and "The Newlyweds." Graden has managed not only to stay on top of MTV's here-today, gone-tomorrow ethos but expand his authority to where he's put between 200 and 300 programs on the air.

"It's one of those things that's increasingly gratifying, to see an executive who truly approaches television from a creative point of view without ignoring the business of all of it," said television producer Michael Davies, whose credits include "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

A gently prodding phone call from Graden when he heard Davies was pitching an interesting show to another network recently resulted in VH1 getting the project — a late-night talk show still under development — when the other network backed off.

Every holiday season Graden sends to friends not only a card, but an exquisitely curated CD mix of songs. "He lives a creative life," Davies said.

It would be unusual to get country music fans, rappers and fans of Britney Spears or old Jackson Browne videos to agree on much of anything, yet Graden is the man overseeing the mix of networks that appeal to each one.

What's he doing running a country music channel, anyway?

"If you go home (to Hillsboro, Ill.) and visit my parents — not that I'd wish that on anyone — you would find CMT on 24 hours a day," he said. "My parents are finally proud of what I do because they watch CMT. Before, I don't think they understood what I do every day."

Logo may be his biggest challenge yet.

"I don't envy his position," said Paul Colichman, founder of Here, which offers primarily edgy material oriented to gays and lesbians in about 45 million homes.

"He's got competing constituencies," he said. "He's got advertisers who are fearful of offending anyone because they're going after mass groups of people. At the same time, he's got to create a service that is compelling to the gay and lesbian audience who wants to watch it. It kind of depends on their appetite for gay lite."

The decision to remake a Canadian series about planning a commitment ceremony, called "My Fabulous Gay Wedding," illustrates the fine line being walked. The Logo series is instead called "First Comes Love." The title wasn't changed to sidestep controversy, but rather to better reflect a show about relationships, a Logo spokesman said.

Graden said his job is to serve the target gay and lesbian audience and not worry about cultural critics who may look over his shoulder.

"That said, we've also said from early on that the standards for Logo will be that of a general entertainment network," he said. "The assumption that I would have to push certain standards to tell my story instead of yours I don't get, because they're all human stories."

Potential viewers have told Logo that it's important to reflect their community's diversity, he said. So there will be documentaries telling what it's like, for instance, to be a 22-year-old Latino homosexual or a lesbian couple that has been together for decades.

That's different from the other, sharply focused MTV networks; watch MTV and you know it's made for 21-year-olds. Even corporate cousin BET is more interested in young black viewers than the black audience as a whole.

"We're talking to an audience that has already felt that it has been excluded from the media tapestry for many years," Graden said. "It didn't feel right to create a channel where some people would feel further excluded."

Having a gay or lesbian in charge of Logo was essential, Colichman said. Quietly proud of the moment, Graden said it has symbolic and practical advantages.

"It is important and powerful that you have both gay and lesbian voices directly in the conversation for the product you're trying to create because you're trying to serve an audience," he said. "We don't want any of our channels to look like a corporate man was handing down what he thinks an audience would like."

MTV networks and are part of Viacom, Inc.