MTV’s Real World

Teen Spirit: Teenage girls --part of MTV's key demographic -- give a cheer on the set of Total Request Live (a.k.a. TRL).Photo: Alex Tehrani

It’s one of those sweltering afternoons in Los Angeles when the dead air seems to suffocate the dingy, Chandleresque lowlands off the Harbor Freeway near USC. Nevertheless, two top executives of the most envied network in the country look cooler than the suits of any television network have any business looking. They’ve just dropped in to see the final sound-check the day before the MTV Movie Awards, and here they are, slouching like overgrown teenagers in two of the 6,300 empty seats inside the cavernous Shrine Auditorium. Kelly Osbourne, Ozzy’s youngest daughter, strolls into the theater, looking like a Hollywood Boulevard street urchin with her fuchsia hair and baggy black hooded sweatshirt, but trailing a posse that would make Madonna take notice. In fact, in a fit of Madonna-like imperiousness, Kelly has demanded to have the hall cleared so she can run through “Papa Don’t Preach,” which she will sing to climax the awards show tomorrow. There’s only one snag.“Kelly’s never done this before,” says Brian Graden, MTV’s head of programming. “She’s never even sung in public. Can you imagine making your debut on national television?” Network suits are paid to panic over stuff like this. But the guy who gets paid to program MTV is looking amused. At 39, Graden is dressed the part of a fifties juvenile delinquent, in a plain white undershirt and dark Levi’s jeans. His boss, MTV president Van Toffler, is leaning against a soundboard a few feet away, wearing a surfer-ish gray sweatshirt. They look like two kids who just pulled the school fire alarm and now are looking forward to watching the commotion. Then again, why not? At worst, Kelly’s going to make a fool of herself. But so long as Kelly makes a fool of herself in a compelling way, well, it’ll be great TV. “People always want to watch the train wreck on television,” Toffler says. Which applies to the whole Osbournes phenomenon in the first place. The Osbournes was never supposed to be anything more than a single episode of Cribs, MTV’s at-home-with-the-stars series. “I assure you, no one from the networks was calling up Ozzy Osbourne and asking, ‘Can you do a show for us?’ ” Toffler says with a cool smile. “I mean, you can’t even understand what the guy is saying. We debated subtitles.” Ozzy and Sharon got their own show only because the guys at the top got a chuckle out of it, and if it sank like a stone, who cares? They’d just play another two hunches tomorrow. The Osbournes did not sink like a stone. Instead, it quickly became a stealth hit and a fitting cap to a remarkable, and completely unforeseen, turnaround that MTV has pulled off over the past five years—which also happens to coincide snugly with Toffler and Graden’s ascent at the network.The rebound is all the more unlikely when you consider that television in general is stumbling, pop music is in a trough, and MTV’s very identity—a pure music-video channel—seemed obsolete almost a decade ago. It’s little wonder, then, that everyone’s trying to figure out MTV’s winning formula. “I would say it’s the opposite of having a formula,” Toffler says. “We’ve got an audience that is much more adventurous than the rest of the population. They’re not afraid to fail, so they will let us fail. Anyone can walk in the door with an idea, and we’ll sort of say, ‘Oh, by the way, there’s no full frontal nudity, okay?,’ then you do the rest.”If the TV business is by nature chaos, why not embrace it? Chaos is vitality. Chaos is opportunity. Chaos is youth. “But the point that most people miss is how not-by-chance The Osbournes occurs, how not-by-chance you have one hit after another,” explains Graden. “What they don’t understand is how disciplined we are about creating chaos.” Of course, there’s good chaos and there’s bad chaos, and not long before the new regime took over at MTV, there was more of the latter than the former. “Culturally, I think it was a general crisis of confidence,” says Graden of the period around 1997, when MTV hired him. Graden has just flown in from MTV’s programming offices in Los Angeles. He settles into a chair in an office in the New York headquarters. The elegant clock of the Times building next door glows gigantic in the vast south window.“When you’ve had a period of failure, an organization becomes defensive, you don’t want to try anything,” he explains. “And that runs counter to the development mantra here, which is pretty much ‘Try everything. Try too much.’ ” By the mid-nineties, the network was already well into a massive and risky effort to reimagine itself from the ground up. The old MTV—essentially, a radio station with visuals—had lost its hold on the eye-blink teenage attention span, which MTV had already helped shorten, and ratings were sinking. The rock video was starting to look like a Reagan-era fad, like Wayfarer sunglasses. “The novelty just wore off,” explains Toffler. “On the radio, you can listen to the same song over and over. But when it’s attached to visuals, it burns much faster.” “I loved the early nineties on MTV—Public Enemy, Nirvana, Rock the Vote. It was like heaven. We had influential content, influential music, things were changing, but we had low, low ratings,” says Judy McGrath, MTV’s president at the time and a veteran of the network’s entire 21-year history (she now oversees MTV, VH1, and other music-related properties under MTV Networks chief Tom Freston). “Back then, our steady diet was a lot of leading-edge stuff, and not a ton of people were watching.”

Executive Decision: Programming chief Brian Graden, at right, meets with production-management director Eugene Caldwell.Photo: Alex Tehrani

By the time Graden came aboard, the network was willing to try anything to get the viewers back. MTV needed a jolt, if not a defibrillator, and Graden brought with him impeccable fuck-the-Establishment credentials. Graden had never really wanted to play the corporate game. In order to satisfy some sense he had of what a grown-up should do, he entered Harvard Business School in 1987 and earned an M.B.A. But he really couldn’t sustain the act. “At Harvard, they take the recruiting process very seriously. They tell you how you’re supposed to dress, how you’re supposed to act. One day, I ended up at Drexel, Burnham, Lambert. It was like my twentieth interview in a row, and this power player in a suit across the desk says to me, with clenched teeth, ‘Why is it you want to take my job away from me someday?’ I just had one of those weird epiphany moments. I looked at him and said, ‘I can’t imagine anything more horrifying than being you.’ It just popped out of my mouth.” Already about $100,000 in debt, Graden figured it couldn’t get much worse, so he abandoned a future in banking to try an assistant job at Fox Television. Fortunately, the boss he was fetching coffee for also happened to be cable’s maverick-genius-of-the-moment, Stephen Chao, who was pioneering reality TV with Cops and America’s Most Wanted, shows that both repelled and fascinated. As those programs took off, Graden was right there, learning firsthand that a little risk can go a very long way.In 1993, he created an experimental production arm of Fox called Foxlab. While there, he met two guys from the University of Colorado who were trying to con some TV dupe into financing a feature-length film called Cannibal: The Musical. Graden couldn’t do anything with Cannibal, but he was interested in Matt Stone and Trey Parker, spending a year trying to develop projects and finally handing them a $2,000 check with no strings attached to make a video Christmas card featuring a cast of crudely animated cutouts from a small Colorado town. The Spirit of Christmas, featuring a battle between Santa and Jesus, was soon the talk of Hollywood, and everyone wanted Stone and Parker, including Fox and MTV. Comedy Central finally roped in the duo with a $1.5 million offer, and Graden followed, serving as executive producer on South Park. “One of my formative experiences was when I did the focus group for South Park,” Graden says. “I got a 11⁄2 out of 10 with females. Three of them cried. Matt and Trey and I were sitting there going, ‘Well, I guess it’s time to move on to something else.’ But Comedy Central put the show on television anyway, simply because it was so not-what-they-had-seen-before.” Having missed out on Stone and Parker, MTV wasn’t going to miss out on Graden. They offered him a chance to reinvigorate the most-recognized brand among television’s most-sought-after demographic. Besides, Toffler and McGrath made it clear that MTV was Graden’s kind of place. They didn’t mind a flop, so long as it made a loud enough thud. “I’m so blessed at MTV, because we can put anything we want to on television,” Graden says. “I’ve never even shown a pilot to anyone higher up, other than for fun. Unlike the networks, we refuse to impose any time lines. We’ve had shows here that we’ve done in three months, and then there’s Jackass, where we chased Johnny Knoxville for three years, just because he couldn’t give a shit about being a TV star.” Now even the mentor, chao himself, who recently left his post as president of USA Cable, sounds envious of Graden’s freedom at MTV. “It’s like with Jackass,” Chao says. “Spike [Jonze] and P.J. [Knoxville] are friends of mine, and they came to me when I was at USA. They walked into my office carrying this cattle prod, and they were zapping me with it, then they put on this tape of Johnny shooting himself and all that. Like everyone else, I laughed out loud. But on the other hand, it simply wasn’t something that I was ever going to be able to put on a general-entertainment network.”In Graden’s first six months, ratings skyrocketed. An early Graden salvo was Celebrity Deathmatch, a Claymation short based on a gross-out animated short film submitted by an unknown NYU graduate and aspiring filmmaker named Eric Fogel. MTV not only decided to give Fogel a shot but gave him that shot going head-to-head against the Super Bowl’s halftime show. You can’t fail much bigger than that, but the next day, just about anyone under 30—that is, anyone who mattered—was as likely to be talking about RuPaul–vs.–Pamela Anderson as Elway-vs.-Favre.These days, Graden seems to have the golden touch. Of the twenty shows launched this summer, he’s had a 100 percent success rate. In the third quarter of 2002, prime-time ratings were up 26 percent among the core 12–34 demographic. Through October, this year has been the highest rated in network history. Raised in rural illinois, Brian Graden can still, when it’s useful, tap into a towheaded eagerness, like a farmboy out of a Mickey Rooney teen movie. And growing up, he showed more than a little of that hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show excitement. In his late teens, Graden traveled throughout the Midwest by van, cranking out Loverboy covers on keyboards for a band called the Ozones. “I had such a limited worldview because I grew up in a small town, so to me, we were quite successful,” he says proudly. “We could pay for our PA equipment and beer. At that stage in life, that’s all you really care about.” Graden tries to stay in touch with the gee-whiz guy he once was, in part by getting away from Media Bigs he hobnobs with and out of the office every day by 4 p.m. “Any shows that I watch, I watch almost exclusively at home, on my own television, with all the distractions I would have in real life. I need to do that in order to leave one head and enter another.” This open, middle-American side of him might help explain shows like this summer’s smash Sorority, which despite its titillating title is all about the very real concerns of young pledges who are anything but nubile. In September, MTV launched FM Nation, an updated, reality riff on American Graffiti, where restless kids out in Springsteenville cruise the strip on Saturday nights and unload about their frustrations. With Graden, ideas download at FireWire speed, sometimes too quickly even for him. “Sometimes I’ll call my voice mail in the middle of the day to leave myself a message,” he says, laughing, “and by the time I get home and play it, I have no idea what I’m saying.” “I’m a voracious consumer of culture, to the extent I drive my boyfriend nuts,” he adds. “There will be a stack of ten new CDs on my table, and then I have to TiVo everything, and I read at least 30 magazines cover to cover every month. I just can’t stop.” He pauses to consider. “But I don’t read a single book anymore, because it would require more than 30 seconds of my time.“When I was growing up, we were music lovers, and we would rush home after school and watch MTV for like nine hours a day,” he says, smiling over the exaggeration. “I really want MTV to belong to this generation the way it belonged to mine.” Under van toffler, the network has taken up that goal quiteliterally.

Total Control: TRL's Quddus and pop-star-of-the-moment Justin Timberlake go over the script for the day's show.Photo: Alex Tehrani

“As I was moving up through the ranks here, I started to notice that we were lacking a lot of great ideas,” Toffler says, poking at an egg-white omelette one rainy morning at the Paramount Hotel in Times Square. “My challenge was to figure out a way to marshal our resources, to take what our audience was telling us and to translate that into television. They were rejecting these glossy, expensive videos. What the audience was loudly saying was that they wanted to be empowered. They wanted to see themselves on MTV.” In response, MTV served up the hit Taildaters, where two regular-kid strangers go on a blind date and have their seduction moves graded by their friends, who are watching via remote video. This summer, the network aired Crashing, where real stars camped out overnight, Almost Famous–like, at the home of regular-kid fans. “If it’s not terribly expensive, you can do enough shows where ultimately, something will stick and will succeed,” Toffler says.Unlike Graden, or just about any other male in a management capacity at MTV, Toffler doesn’t invite the term boyish. Instead, he falls somewhere in a slightly older range—guyish, dudish? It fits Toffler’s management style, which is rather unusual, at least for a network chief. He wrings the best out of people because they’re absolutely desperate for him to like them. In manner, Toffler’s like the cool older brother who’ll run interference for you when Dad is really pissed. “I was on the way back from New Orleans last winter. It was my first gig for MTV, Mardi Gras,” says Quddus (pronounced koo-doos, the name means “man of peace” in Persian). Quddus is MTV’s Canadian-born V.J.-of-the-moment, thanks to his dreamy spoken-word delivery and his front-man looks—imagine a young Lenny Kravitz who’s overdosed on Keats. “I find my seat on the plane, and the guy next to me, it turns out, works for MTV, too. I don’t know anyone at this point, but this guy was so down-to-earth, so chill. We talked for three straight hours. I’m like, ‘I don’t know what he does, but he’s all right.’ After we land, I’m walking to get my bags and I’m telling our station manager how I was talking to this guy ‘Van’ who apparently works at MTV, too. Joey’s like, ‘That’s our boss, man. He’s the guy who signs our checks.’ ”“Van is always saying, ‘Give me something that makes me go, ‘What the fuck?’ ” says Kevin Mackall, the head producer of MTV’s famous promotional spots, who today wears an orange surfer T and a Korn-roadie-like death mullet whose tail dangles halfway down his broad back. “And the scary thing is, I know exactly what he means.”In Toffler’s mind, MTV can survive only as a laboratory for talent, not as a pantheon. “Anything can come in the door,” Toffler says. “It doesn’t have to come from a given person or division. Ultimately, if enough of us believe in it, we’ll just give them the money and let them do it, and put no real filter between the idea, the creator, and the execution. “Don’t get me wrong: We fail miserably, too,” he continues. “Right now, The Osbournes is working, so there’s a halo effect around the show. Everyone’s saying, ‘Gee, aren’t you kids really smart!’ even though part of it’s just dumb luck. But we’ve also had shows like The Brothers Grunt and Aeon Flux. These are shows that, uh, didn’t really ‘resonate’ the way we’d have liked.” Toffler shrugs. “Sometimes our creators are a little too weird to connect to a human being.“We’re so accustomed to reinventing ourselves every couple of years,” Toffler adds. “For us, it’s like, okay, we know The Osbournes isn’t going to last forever. It’s not going to be like Seinfeld to NBC on Thursday nights, I’ve got a lock for eight years. We have a lock for eighteen months. So it’s like, what else can we do that’s different from everything else on television? Our audience is fickle. They want the next thing. Here, it burns bright, it burns fast. We never get old with our audience.” Toffler, 43, was born in Manhattan and grew up in Long Beach, Long Island, where his father owned a small women’s-clothing-manufacturing business. “I was a music-head. I just had to be around it,” Toffler says. He decided he wanted a life in music, so he took piano lessons. Then guitar lessons. “I just sucked,” he says with a shrug. “I mean, I could play. But I sucked.” Toffler was 22 when MTV debuted. “When I first saw MTV, I said, ‘This is terrible!’ ” He recalls with a laugh. “For me, music was really about the emotional connection, how you connect to the lyrics. Putting visuals to it just ruined the experience for me. Still, I was obsessed with it. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.” Toffler earned a law degree at the University of Pennsylvania in 1983, then found a job in the vague proximity of music as an associate at the Park Avenue law firm of Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays, and Handler, where he worked on deals involving Michael Jackson and the Elvis Presley estate. “But you know what I said about how I played music?” he says. “I was a worse lawyer.” For three years, he plotted his escape, sending off pleading letters to every record label. He finally got a shot at MTV Networks, where he made himself useful as a cool head and, more important, an open mind. If MTV needed help hammering out a global-distribution deal, he’d do that. If Nickelodeon needed an actor to appear in a promo for Mr. Wizard, he’d do that.Eventually, Toffler proved invaluable by extending the brand at the very moment that ratings were starting to dip. It was Toffler who turned popular on-air Unplugged! performances by Eric Clapton and Nirvana into top-selling CDs. By the late nineties, he had been elevated to the general-manager post, where he effectively ran the network’s day-to-day operations while McGrath focused on the big-picture matters. Toffler officially became president in 2000, after Viacom merged with CBS. He also runs MTV Films, which, stunningly for Hollywood, has turned a profit on all fourteen movies it has made—Jackass did $22.7 million on its opening weekend in October. McGrath, the network’s mother superior, still keeps the vast corner office on the twenty-fifth floor, but Toffler’s office, next door, is only slightly less vast. As a practical matter, however, the Viacom corporate ladder seems as distant from the spirit of MTV as the days of vinyl. MTV’s internal structure is not so much a hierarchy as a loose confederation of independent creative teams, like the music team run by Tom Calderone or the news team run by Dave Sirulnick. Ideas are supposed to bubble up from below. As you wander the club-dark corridors of the twenty-third floor, it’s obvious: MTV is the teenager in the Viacom family, and its room is a mess. The individual offices are cluttered with two decades of record-industry freebies. Like installations at the Whitney Biennial, many offices will be organized around a theme, if a haphazard one. On one side, you’ll see a Madonna shrine done up in purple satin. Across the way, a Def Jam palace crammed with more hip-hop marketing paraphernalia than the inside of Russell Simmons’s brain.Along with the overt displays of freedom from cubicle culture, one senses a familiar smugness—it’s that self-conscious, anything’s-possible brashness that supposedly vanished from the corporate landscape with the dot-coms. Everyone’s a little too young. They’re cranking the Hives on their office boom boxes a little too loud. It’s that rare corporate culture where the college interns seem to set the tone. Then again, what if they didn’t?

In the Pink: The MTV offices look anything but corporate. Photo: Alex Tehrani

Toffler himself doesn’t feel all that removed from the demographic, even at 43. “Even though I make bad TV and bad movies now, I still need to be around music. There’s nothing like it,” he explains. “I get more free CDs now than I’ve ever gotten in my life, and I still buy more than I ever have, because I don’t get a lot of the stuff on the independent labels, or the imports. At the rehearsals of our shows, I’ll be in the front row. It’s just cool. As jaded and twisted as I am as ‘an executive’ now, to be able to do that stuff, well, that definitely beats looking at budgets.”Which brings up a thorny old question. Digital cable may allow for MTV2, for MTVS in Spanish, for an MTV specifically for college kids, for MTV synched with wireless telephones. But everyone’s still going to ask: “Who took the M out of MTV?” Tom Calderone has grown weary of the question. “The thing I always hear from MTV viewers my age is, ‘Where’s 120 Minutes?’ ” says the 38-year-old Calderone, whose 27-member division develops all the music- and talent-related programming under Graden. “You know what? We could have done it, a new 120—just two hours of videos. You would be happy, I would be happy, but no one would have watched it.”In place of videos, Graden has encouraged more long-form programming. This fall, MTV debuted artist-LAUNCH, a show that follows an act like Limp Bizkit or Justin Timberlake through the entire process of putting out an album, from the tuning-up in the recording studio to the first peek at the SoundScan numbers.“So Making the Video becomes the new video franchise, TRL the place for pop videos, and shows like Cribs and FANatic get at the traditional celebrity interview in different ways,” Graden says. “Once that’s established, you can throw a Tom Green in the mix and it’s just fine, because it doesn’t overshadow your identity.”Graden seems strangely energized, even though the chat is turning rather gloomy. &”It’s an utter anomaly that our ratings at MTV kept going up,” he snorts. “That’s going to end at some point, because fragmentation means that there are going to be 400 channels, not 50. On top of that, I can safely say there were no real competitors for our audience five years ago. Now the list is probably ten strong, people like the WB, people who have a material piece of our audience. If you just look at the pie, the slices will have to get smaller, even if you’re successful. At some point, it’s mathematically impossible to remain where we are.”And the only defense against the inevitable? Disposability. It’s all disposable—the stars, the shows, and especially the viewers. It has to be. If everything doesn’t turn over continually, colorfully, even violently, there might not be any MTV. And there are no exceptions.“I could be contrarian and say The Osbournes might be done already,” Graden says flatly. “I hope it’s a big hit. But their life has changed so dramatically since last year. Kelly’s launching a music career, Ozzy’s off on tour, and Mom, of course, is fighting cancer. That’s a different television show—and it already burned so bright in the spring.”There’s no point in swearing allegiance to The Osbournes, in other words. They won’t be around tomorrow. Neither will you.

MTV’s Real World