I Want My Gay TV

Brian Graden.Photo: Scott Gries/Getty Images

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.

The cast of Noah's Arc.Photo: Courtesy of Logo

And that’s just to handle the homophobes. There’s also the gay community itself, some members of which have already criticized popular shows like Queer Eye for their mincing minstrelism—much in the way black critics have taken BET to task for its addiction to rap videos and blinged-out thugs. When asked about the issue of gay ghettoization, Graden says, “Just because there’s an African-American show on NBC doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a BET.” Which is a reasonable point, except for the fact that there isn’t an African-American show on NBC. Logo will provide a home for gay-themed programming, but it might also prove a convenient excuse for networks to keep their schedules decidedly straight.

And while Graden is justifiably proud of the inclusiveness of his programming at MTV, a channel that’s never been shy about incorporating gay stories and characters, that very victory—a kind of seamless, what’s-the-big-deal integration into mainstream broadcasting—seems to argue against a gay niche channel. “With Logo,” says Graden, “we want to say, ‘You’re important enough to have a home base. To give you a place where you live. Go visit other places if you like, but we’ll always be here for you.’”

All of which raises the question: How do you build a home that’s equally comfortable for the circuit boy from Chelsea and the suburban bear from Minnesota—not to mention his lesbian neighbors or their transgendered mail carrier?

Graden’s answer is not, at first, entirely satisfying. “Ultimately, what we came to is that diversity is key,” he says. This sentiment sounds good for a bumper sticker, but it’s peculiar coming from Graden, given that his particular genius is providing wishy-washy channels with a strong, distinctive slant. “In a world of 400 channels, if you don’t have a personality, no one’s going to remember you at the party,” says Graden. And, true enough, the MTV he created is easy to personify: Just think goofy, slightly gross, mischievous, kinda hot 19-year-old in skateboard shorts and a trucker hat, part Ashton Kutcher, part Johnny Knoxville. The same’s true of VH1: If the channel were a person, it would be a paunchy, thirtysomething hipster comedian, waxing nostalgic about the Thompson Twins.

“Diversity is key,” he says. This sentiment sounds good for a bumper sticker, but it’s peculiar coming from Graden.

Now, though, he’s taking an all-things-to-all-people approach. “With Logo, the second you give a description of the channel, you’ve got a personality, and an entire audience who knows, This is for me.” Which sounds suspiciously like, Logo’s here, it’s queer, and if you are, too, you’ll watch it. Perhaps it’s more useful to look at what Graden does, and not just what he says he does. For when he describes his job, he sounds slightly Jedi-like: “I exercise intuition around what connects emotionally. It’s all entirely unexplainable to me. I know what I do, but where it comes from or why I’m okay at it, I don’t know. It just is.” Still, his accomplishments suggest that, whatever it is he does, he’s done it better over the past eight years than anyone else in television. Other networks have found hits, but Graden’s found phenomena. For example, when he watched the Newlyweds pilot—which to an average eye might have looked like a tedious diary of two washed-up teen pop stars—he saw … something more. “The idea of Newlyweds was not a TV show,” he says. “The idea was a moment when Jessica said something silly, and Nick rolled his eyes, and that was the entire show. Those eight seconds. That’s what we bought.”

Graden might use earnest but anodyne words like “diversity” when describing the philosophy of his new channel, but he’s exercised his judicious eye in subtly shaping Logo’s offerings. When the potential programs for Logo were unveiled back in July 2004, they read like a parody of a gay network: Shows in development with Cher and Chastity Bono, and a slate of movies like The Birdcage and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Since Graden’s arrival, the Cher show has disappeared and Baby Jane’s been buried. “It was amazing how many of the early pitches that came in were in the predictably camp or retro category,” he says, “And we were like, ‘No, let’s try and transcend that. Let’s bust stereotypes when we can.’” So Graden championed films with overtly gay characters (Kissing Jessica Stein, Philadelphia) rather than camp classics. He met with prominent gay creators such as, yes, Will & Grace’s Max Mutchnick, to discuss an overall approach. And he fine-tuned the balance of Logo’s schedule. At one point, he realized the channel was too heavy on pitches about gay-male characters and so put out a call for lesbian-themed shows. Similarly, after acquiring a host of PBS-worthy documentaries, he green-lighted a gay stand-up show.

And, all the while, Graden sorted through piles of pitches of exactly the type you’d expect a gay channel to receive—Queer Eye clones, hunk-meets-hunk dating shows, and tried-and-true-formats-with-a-twist. (It’s Big Brother … with gays!) He’s too polite, or perhaps too politic, to describe precisely what was pitched and ditched, but it’s clear that Jack would never be made a VP at the real-life Logo. “A lot of them were just taking generic television and dropping in gays,” he says, “as opposed to saying, ‘Let’s start with what our life experience is, and let the shows suggest themselves from there.’”

So after passing on a number of reality shows about club life, for example, Graden came upon one that caught his eye: Open Bar, a show about a recently closeted man who’s opening a gay nightclub. “This one appealed to me because it’s really the story of one person’s coming out,” he says. “The fun, interesting backdrop of a gay bar suddenly has more dimension to it.” Another original drama, Noah’s Arc, about a group of young, gay, black friends in L.A., came from a Website featuring rough-hewn, shot-on-the-cheap footage. But when Graden watched the show, he saw something more. “It was a homemade pilot shot with too little money,” he says. “It didn’t really have a story. There was nothing slick about it. But there was one guy who, when he smiled, you liked him. I wanted to put my arms around Noah and take care of him. That’s it.”

Less than two weeks before Logo’s official launch, all that exists for public consumption is a four-minute promo, concocted for potential advertisers at the “up-front” presentation held at Madison Square Garden in May. Before screening the promo, Graden shows me a few MTV shows he’s particularly proud of. (“Pretty groovy,” he says of one.) Then he pops in the Logo tape.

When he talks about TV, he often does so without emotion, as though conducting a seminar. But when he’s actually watching TV, he folds one leg up under the other, leaning forward over a backward chair with a gleeful grin on his face. As he watches his Logo tape, it’s easy to see in him the midwestern kid who grew up soaking in The Partridge Family, Gilligan’s Island, and anything else beamed to him from the great big outside world.

The promo is little more than a flashy rundown of the schedule packaged with slick graphics and pounding music. But it’s obvious the shows cover an impressive spectrum: There’s Tickled Pink, an I Love the ’80s–style look at gay pop-cult icons; Farm Family, a documentary about a middle-aged male couple on a midwestern farm; and Curl Girls, a “reality soap” about a half-dozen attractive lesbian surfers. If anything, the shows seem inclusive to a fault, linked by a warm, celebratory tone rather than the smarty-pants irony you might expect.

But this welcoming inclusivity is, to Graden, the defining feature of Logo, both as a political mandate and a necessary strategy. “People always ask, ‘What’s your demographic?’ ” he says. “They assume it’s a 36-year-old white guy in West Hollywood. Well, maybe in the future there will be nine different channels targeting this audience, each with specific sensibilities. But for now, this is it. This is what there is.” And suddenly his talk of “diversity” seems less hokey and more like Realpolitik—the only way to approach a channel that so many people have been waiting for, for so long, and each will want to claim as their own.

I Want My Gay TV