7 Questions* for Fred Graver: writer & online executive

Fred Seibert
May 15, 2016 · 7 min read

“Traditional media thrives in an environment of laziness.”

Like the sign says, Fred Graver is a thinker. But, he’s a very big thinker, with a sense of humor, a rare combination.

The first time the (other) Fred (as he signs most of his emails to me) and I met was when I interviewed him for a job, and I was totally intimidated. He’d been a star comedy writer at The National Lampoon, Late Night with David Letterman, Jon Stewart, Cheers. I mean, jeez. What I couldn’t exactly understand is why I was talking with him about an internet job. He explained to me that he’d had an email address since 1984 (at The WELL), and that he’d quit writing sitcoms to become a internet pioneer at Disney Imagineering. ‘Nuff said.

Graver came to work as my colleague at MTV Networks Online, and as you’ll read below, he continued his path down both sides of TV/Internet Street, successfully creating shows, programming cable networks, eventually finding his way to his current job as the guru of TV and Twitter, where he shows the superstars of television how the social platform can help their lives.

The Freds became fast friends as I marveled at the sheer breadth of his mind, and the fact that no matter what subject came up, he’d read something, thought something, done something about it. Anything. A conversation with Fred Graver is always inspiring.

1 From Lampoon to comedy writing… check. To online executive?

Well, it makes a lot more sense through the rear view mirror… As a comedy writer, I spent many years on Late Night with David Letterman, then on In Living Color, and then with Jon Stewart. Every one of those places were about ripping up the conventions of media and reassembling them into something new.

The turning point for me came when I was hired to work with the Disney Imagineers in the mid-90s, trying to imagine what would happen when the internet collided with TV. We had amazing minds on this team, from the inventor of the Macintosh interface to one of the fathers of Artificial Intelligence. My job was just to understand what these guys were saying and communicate it to the Disney Execs. It’s amazing to me what the team predicted: some device that could deliver your phone calls, your tv shows, etc; TV Everywhere; the “binge watching” model; and a “second screen” where everyone could talk to each other while they were watching their favorite shows were all in their prognostications.

I was fortunate enough to be allowed to do some test projects at Disney Channel and ABC Family, which lead me to MTV Networks, where I worked on the short-lived (but fabulous!) MTVi. We were creating internet projects and content that was bringing MTV content to this new “internet” audience, and vice-versa. It felt like the next generation of writing and producing. We did some fun stuff, including what I think was the first “audience voted” awards show (The MyVH1 Awards in 2000).

The 2000 internet crash sent a lot of us back to TV, and I joined the staff of VH1, making the transition from writer/producer to executive, which I saw as just a way of turning from player to coach. I spent a lot of time there trying to figure out programming that would live on the internet and TV, the best example of which is probably Best Week Ever , which brought blogging culture to TV.

Twitter was the logical outgrowth of the collision of the internet and tv. I’m fond of saying that Twitter wasn’t designed to be a “second screen,” but every night millions of people do that exact thing. I was really fortunate to meet up with them, and spend the last four years helping networks, producers and talent create great experiences on both platforms.

2 A story about Hollywood writing?

The best part of writing in Hollywood is lunch — whether you’re going to lunch with people or in a writer’s room.

I spent a delightful year working with Norman Lear , and we became pretty friendly. Once in a while, he’d invite me to join him for lunch, and one day we had lunch with Walter Matthau. (Google him, now! Then go watch some of his movies !) Matthau had just returned from a trip to Europe, which included a tour of Auschwitz.

While he was touring through the remains of the horrific death camp, a woman approached him and asked for his autograph. “Madame,” he gently replied, “This is hardly the time or place.”

A half hour or so later, the same woman approached him again, bearing a piece of paper and a pen. “Madame,” Matthau insisted, “No.”

As he walked back to his car after hours of touring this memorial to the ultimate evil, the woman rushed up to him for a last word.

“Thanks for ruining Auschwitz for me!”

3 What have online founders misunderstood about traditional media?

Passivity.

Traditional media thrives in an environment of laziness. Online founders keep forgetting about the “lean back” experience. People really want someone to filter things for them, do some hard digging and thinking for them, and tell them a good story. And they’ll pay for that, over and over again.

I can’t tell you how many demos I’ve sat through from people who have devised devices for accessing and consuming media, with 18 different ways the audience “could” get their content and interact with it. I’m usually asleep by the second one.

4 What have traditional media executives missed about shift online?

The great thing about the shift in online behavior is that the “tv anytime / anywhere / on every device” audience is demonstrating clear “pathways” to what they want to watch. You can see them as they hear about a show on Facebook or Twitter, click on a hashtag or talent account, share a piece of content, engage with another friend about a show or network, and then join the conversation.

If you embrace the multiple paths to consumption, you can begin to figure out how to find, engage and connect with audiences in deep, emotional ways. We see it every day at Twitter, and I’m always surprised that traditional media isn’t listening harder to their audience through digital engagement.

5 With the atomization of information, will there ever again something with the impact of “the cover of Time magazine?”

There are so many questions embedded in just the phrase “The Cover of Time Magazine.”

Will we ever have some form of media that captures a national agenda, gives a massive audience what they “need to know” about the world, and embodies a belief in progress and “The American Century?” Will a single-minded publisher will rule over the media with a singular point of view that dictates what’s “news” and what isn’t? Will there ever be a media “object” that will be talked about and seen by everyone, and carries the weight of great authority? Will we ever live in a world (atomized, decentralized and overwhelmingly diverse) that will accept one media outlet as “authoritative?”

The answer to all of those questions, by the way, is no. And frankly, that’s a good thing. That said, I do think there we will need something that rises above the “echo chamber” of niche programming. I think the audience will create that, somehow, but I haven’t yet seen what’s going to break through.

6 Hollywood vs. New York. Discuss.

The other day, a friend of mine who lives in Brentwood was talking about his kids, and I asked if they went to some fancy school with all of the other kids of showrunners and producers and media executives.

“Oh, we’re not the rich people out here any more,” he said, “It’s all hedge fund and investment guys. The TV people are the poor people in Brentwood.”

By the nature of the city, New York media people have always known that there was a massive machine of money, culture, power and politics that swirled around them and didn’t really care about what they did. New York media people know our place. People in Hollywood are just beginning to realize that the sun does not revolve around them.

That said, there are some wonderful creatives in Hollywood who DO understand that the audience is changing, the way of consuming media is changing, and the means of making media are changing. So, the differences are eroding. There’s a lot of great work coming out of both coasts.

7 Tell us a joke.

Hey, I’ll tell you two, one old media and one new.

First one: A writer, a director and a producer are eating at a restaurant. All three order the soup. When it arrives, the writer takes a sip. “This is good!” the writer says. The director takes a sip, then puts salt and pepper in. “That’s better,” the director says. Without taking a sip, the producer stands up and pisses in the soup.

“Now it’s PERFECT!”

Second one: A philanthropist, a VC and a software engineer are playing golf. The round is going excruciatingly slowly, because they are behind a foursome of blind people.

“How wonderful that they are fulfilling their potential as humans,” the philanthropist says, and vows to support more organizations helping the challenged play sports.

“I wonder if there’s some technology that could make this better,” says the VC. He makes a note to check into it.

The programmer looks out at the course.

“These people. Why don’t they play at night?”

Thanks Fred!

*7 Questions, an irregular series of interviews with interesting people. Coming up soon, writers, graphic designers, educators, tech founders, start up investors, music folks, and more.

- See more at: http://fredseibert.frederator.com/tagged/7-Questions

Fred Seibert

Written by

I make cartoons and TV networks.

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