Rapper's Delight

Behind Diddy's Attempt to Bring Music Back to TV

Sean “Diddy” Combs seems to have a Midas touch these days.

Forbes declared the entrepreneur and music mogul to be the richest artist on the hip-hop scene — ahead of Jay-Z and Kanye West – earning more than $580 million over the past 12 months. His cash flow comes from music recording label Bad Boy and urban clothing line Sean John, as well as lush endorsements such as Ciroc Vodka.

But Combs, 43, launches his most ambitious venture to date today (Oct. 21) in music-based cable network Revolt TV. The network is looking to occupy what Combs describes as “white space” for a 24-hour music channel left when MTV and BET all but abandoned the category in the late 2000s for original reality and scripted content. Set to launch to more than 20 million homes and vowing to offer a diverse lineup of music video and news programming, Revolt — one of the new minority-owned networks selected for broad distribution by Comcast as part of the Federal Communications Commission’s conditions for the MSO’s acquisition of NBCUniversal — will look to capture young, music-hungry millennial viewers who are leaving cable to find music content on the web and other alternative platforms.

Combs is no stranger to cable — he successfully produced MTV’s reality-TV show Making the Band from 2002 through 2009 — but he readily admits he’s a rookie as a cable-network owner. For that reason, he has tapped several former cable executives to help run his network, including former ESPN head of content development Keith Clinkscales as Revolt TV’s CEO.

Combs and Clinkscales spoke to Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead ahead of the network’s launch about Revolt TV’s approach to music programming and its multiplatform strategy. An edited transcript follows.

MCN: You’re already a successful businessman, entrepreneur and music mogul. Why a cable channel?

Sean “Diddy” Combs: This has been a seven-year journey for me. I realize that as powerful as music was in the world of cable, there was no really credible No. 1 name in music. After MTV changed its business model, it kind of left a white space there.

Also, music is the most powerful form of communication globally — it’s one of the only things that we can agree upon. We don’t even agree upon religion or politics or other things like that, but we agree on a hit record. If there’s a hit record, we’re singing it worldwide. And that’s a very, very powerful art form.

So I looked at that opportunity, and I saw that cable television was losing its future. Kids were unplugging, they were kicking the [satellite] dish off the roof and they were going to the Internet. Somebody put out a conspiracy theory that kids no longer like TV; like they have a problem with TV. No — they have a problem with the fact that none of the content on TV is being made for them. And music is the No. 1 form of entertainment for millennials. The industry likes to call them millennials, I like to call ‘em young people. It’s more personal to me. So I saw this as an opportunity to help out with the future of cable as it evolves and grows.

MCN: So you see Revolt TV as helping cable to secure millennials?

SC: One of the things I’m doing this afternoon [Oct. 11] is we’re having part two of a 10-part series of a roundtable town hall meeting with millennials. I told my staff I want young people up in here; listen to them, let them run this company. We’re too old. We’re not in the clubs — OK, maybe I am in the clubs — but y’all not in the clubs till 5 o’clock in the morning. You don’t wake up and Instagram somebody. I do though. [Laughter.] We need to get some kids up in here and listen to what they’ve got to say and have a relationship for the fans, by the fans, giving them a platform and a voice.

MCN: You mention there’s a void there in the music space, but that’s mainly because most music-based networks realized that consumers were getting most of their music from other platforms, like the Internet. Can you develop a business model that allows you to be successful on the cable and digital side through music?

SC: As far as our business plan, yes.

Keith Clinkscales: I want to make sure you hear me on this: We’re not just launching a cable network, we’re launching across all platforms. It is important to make sure the we have the power of cable, but it’s also equally as important for the audience that we’re talking about, that you reach them with content on their phones, through Twitter, through Instagram and all the different other outlets. And even though we’re doing a good job of [cable] distribution, we’re not going to be in the entire country. So our digital platform, our ability to present this brand and our content digitally, has to be something that we’re paying not just attention to, but making a foundation principle of what Revolt is.

MCN: There are still music-based cable networks in the marketplace. What about the competition?

SC: I’d kind of like to say [that] music is homeless, in a sense. That’s the problem, and I have a solution. I think that’s what makes me different than people that have other music networks is I’m a music man. I was bred for this role and for this time, because of my credibility, my relationships and my understanding of music. I feel like I can be successful in this role. I feel like a boxer that has trained and I’m ready to fight. And the most important thing that’s going to separate us from everybody else is that we’re going to listen and we’re going to amplify. A lot of the other [music] networks, they’re not listening. A lot of the cable distributors are also not listening to what millennials want, so they’re being reactionary instead of proactive. Proactive is getting in business with Revolt.

MCN: Are the cable operators listening to you?

SC: Yes, yes, yes. I’ve been received with nothing but the utmost respect by the cable community. I think that the cable community is extremely smart and they’re looking towards the future, so they are looking at us and we’re in talks with them. Our investment and our plan is that we’re bringing them the future.

MCN: Given your success within the hip-hop music genre, do you think it’ll be difficult to market the Revolt TV brand as one that appeals to a cross-section of musical tastes?

SC: No, but I think that’s something that I have to be aware of and that I have to make clear. Even though I am African-American, and I am the chairman of this network, and I come from the world of hip-hop, that’s not the only music that I will be supporting or that the network will be supporting, or liking. It will be very diverse, with all ethnic groups, different genres of music.

MCN: You mentioned taking time to build the brand. Even Oprah Winfrey has had a tough time launching her new network. What will you do differently?

SC: First of all, if it wasn’t for Oprah having her network, I wouldn’t have gotten my opportunity. It raised awareness even to Comcast on how the landscape of cable television and the media world was not diverse enough. I don’t really look at the negatives that everybody wants to kind of put up. I look at what she had the courage to do, and in any business, you’re going to have some ups and downs. I’m not a champion in this industry; I’m a rookie. I have the opportunity and I’m going to do my best with the opportunity.

Now all of this that we’re talking about, it takes time. See I’m a marathon runner. I decided to run the New York City Marathon eight weeks before hand. They put me up next to my Kenyan brothers and sisters. I am a true believer on the power of belief — I’m one of the crazy ones, Steve Jobs would say. So I actually thought I could win the marathon. So I run out the first six miles like I’m a Kenyan long-distance runner. And I’m doing like three-minute miles. I get to mile six and I almost died. I had to pull back, slow my pace down to almost an 11-minute mile just to make it. I had to walk some, drink some water, run some, but I finished the marathon. But the lesson that it taught me was to go out slow, pace myself, conserve my energy, you know?

This is the hardest thing I’ve done, you know what I’m saying, since the marathon.

MCN: Taking that a step further, how involved will you be in the day-to-day operation of the network and will you have a major presence on-air?

SC: No, I will not have a major presence on-air. I want to put early 20-somethings on-air, people that look like the people that are very engaged in music; the people that we’re serving. I don’t really fit that criteria, even though I do look very young. [Laughter.]

My role is to play a part on the team as one of the visionaries; not the primary visionary but one of the visionaries because I feel like it’s going to take a team to do this. And then I have a great CEO; I have a great president [former MTV executive Andy Schuon]; I have a great head of programming [former Comedy Central programming exec Val Boreland]. I wanted to go out and recruit the best people that had passion for this. And I feel we put together like a stellar, stellar team to accomplish this.

MCN: What do you think of the progress of the two channels, Magic Johnson’s Aspire network and BabyFirst Americas, that have already launched under Comcast’s pledge to launch minority-owned cable networks?

KC: I like where we are. I don’t look at it against their progress, I look at the progress of Oprah, I look at the progress of some of the sports channels that are new. The sports channels go after fans and people who are extremely passionate. We go after young people who are extremely passionate about music. That is an opportunity for us because the business models of many of the music channels have changed as they’ve gone to more original programming. We have a plan that’s based on our studio, on our development of our news operation, and on the development of music and covering music passionately.

SC: This was a big step up for Comcast and they deserve a lot of praise for doing this. Because what it has done is given hope to millions of people of all colors worldwide. A lot of people ask me about the money … this is bigger than money. This right here is actually changing the world. It’s really that dramatic for me, because it’s an opportunity for a young African-American man from Harlem to come and have his own network.

MCN: Give me a sense of what programming will be on the network when it launches on Oct. 21?

SC: You’ll see the start of a vision. You’ll see music in a way that’s visually thought-provoking and compelling and energetic. But it will be a little train-wreck-TV-ish. We may go blank a couple of times, but that’s what kids like. Kids like it raw, they like the mistakes, they like the truth and we’re going to tell the truth. And it may not be pretty every day, but you’re gonna say, they’re getting better by the day.

KC: We have a show called State of the Music, which looks at the business of music and how it affects everything from marketing to Bruno Mars appearing at the 2014 Super Bowl [halftime show]. We have a show by Andy Harms, who is an expert and a passionate aficionado on alternative music. We have the same type of show for hip-hop, and then we’ll go from there.

The main thing is that we’ll continue to develop different shows based on our audience. But early on, we wanted to make sure that we heard from that audience. And then every hour on the hour, we will have news breaks to update you on different topics that are endemic to what’s happening.