Last fall, an episode of Will & Grace aired in which Will, a gay lawyer, and Jack, his swishy best friend, were invited to a focus group for a new gay-and-lesbian TV channel. Will, the uptight, buttoned-down one, wanted shows that reflected a historical perspective on gay life and chronicled “our continuing struggles.” Jack, the flighty, fizzy one, wanted “gay Jeopardy!,” featuring naked men with buzzers. Will was asked to leave the group. Jack was hired as the junior VP of new programming.
The episode poked gentle fun at Logo, the gay-and-lesbian television channel owned by Viacom that, after a four-month delay, will be launched in 10 million homes on June 30. Will & Grace was also, of course, mocking the notion of programming a channel for an audience linked primarily by sexual orientation. To most urbane observers, it may seem like there’s an amorphous, know-it-when-you-see-it “gay” sensibility. (Golden Girls, yes; Everybody Loves Raymond, no; Antiques Roadshow, maybe.) But programming a niche channel around gayness is less like targeting, say, golf lovers than it is like targeting, say, people with red hair.
“When the idea of a gay-and-lesbian channel first comes up, you say, ‘Ah, completely obvious,’ ” says Brian Graden, the onetime head of programming at both MTV and VH1 who’s now helming Logo. “But then you think, wait. As the first 24-hour linear reflection of the gay world, it’s not entirely obvious. What, in fact, do you want to put out there?”
Graden, who is gay, is a compact man in his early forties with a boyish face and a quiet voice, with which he’s prone to say things like “24-hour linear reflection of the gay world.” In conversation, he has the genial and even-toned demeanor of a church youth pastor, which is surprising, given that he’s the man responsible for loosing Punk’d and Jackass—that latter a show famous for locking grown men into Porta Potties and rolling them down a hill—on the American TV landscape. But then, Graden is, on inspection, full of surprises. For example, the former MTV guru peppers his most emphatic statements with the expression “It’s pretty groovy.” He did his undergraduate degree at Oral Roberts University. (He was not out at the time.) He has an M.B.A. from Harvard. And after a brief stint as an accountant, he headed to L.A. to work in television, and later discovered a little-known, crudely animated quantity called South Park, a short clip of which he sent around the industry as an electronic greeting. “It was my throwaway Christmas card,” he says. “I didn’t think it was going to end up on everyone’s T-shirt in a year and a half.”
But South Park ended up on T-shirts, and Graden ended up at MTV. Now, within Viacom, he’s considered something of a wunderkind—a roaming handyman, the TV-programming equivalent of Pulp Fiction’s Mr. Wolfe. At MTV, he unearthed huge hits such as The Osbournes, Newlyweds, Jackass, and Punk’d. Then he went on to reinvent the floundering VH1 as a clever hipster-nostalgia clearinghouse defined by snarky pop-cult commentaries like I Love the ’80s and Best Week Ever.
Graden had been involved in developing the Logo concept for years before its official announcement in May 2004, and was given control over programming in November 2004. Given his résumé, Graden’s sensibility would seem more gay-Jeopardy! than struggle-chronicler. But he’s confident he’s crafting a channel that will reach out to a diverse audience—the Wills and the Jacks, and everyone in between. To do this, however, he’s embraced a strategy that’s the exact opposite of the one that’s proved so successful in the past. He’s made a career of rescuing channels by sharpening their personalities. But a strong personality, he believes, is the last thing Logo needs.
The timing was perfect for a gay-and-lesbian network, and then, suddenly, it wasn’t. Two years ago, Will & Grace was a groundbreaking hit, and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Queer As Folk, and The L Word seemed to herald a bold new moment for gay-themed TV. Now the political climate has shifted, and the brief flare-up of mainstream gay programming—remember It’s All Relative, ABC’s short-lived sitcom about the husband with conservative parents and the wife with two gay dads?—has fizzled out. The biggest gay-related TV stories in the past year were the whisper campaign about a Desperate Housewives star and the flogging of SpongeBob SquarePants.
Viacom is pressing forward, however, having invested heavily in Logo. (Graden won’t talk figures, but he points to more than 200 movie acquisitions and six original series as proof of the company’s commitment.) Still, the rollout has not been without complications. MTV’s head of affiliate sales reported that one cable operator told her, when presented with the concept, “There are no gays here.” And the channel’s launch, originally scheduled for February, was delayed, which Graden attributes to “readying the system to throw the switches.” Some partners remain nervous enough about public backlash that Viacom’s prepared a talking-points list to guide them when dealing with angry customers or the press.