Revolt Will Be Televised

Sean Combs’ all-music network aims to super-serve fans

Keith Clinkscales knows from big media. He was tapped by Quincy Jones to serve as president/CEO of Vibe magazine, and went on to an executive stint at ESPN. But since July, he has been in startup mode as CEO of Revolt, a cable network launching Oct. 21 in about 25 million households. (Comcast and Time Warner Cable have carriage deals at launch spanning the top 15 DMAs.) The channel was conceived by entertainment impresario Sean Combs (aka Diddy) as a new-model MTV for millennials. It will cover news and play videos across platforms and aim to become the town square of the Spotified. Clinkscales took a moment during the final run-up to discuss the "white space" Revolt aims to fill.

How close do you feel to being ready?

On one side I feel 100% perfectly ready, and on the other side I feel like ‘Oh my God, this is going to be a disaster' (laughs). I think the truth lies somewhere in between.

How many staffers are there?

Right now it's just under 70 full-time and we still have some more room to go and some more hiring to do.

How long have you been out in the field gathering news?

Really, it kicked in during June and July. Maybe a little bit before that. But that was the time we started going. I think the Magna Carta ... Holy Grail album [by Jay-Z] was a time where we got a break on news.

How did your news team react when the surprise 3-minute Samsung ad ran during the NBA playoffs announcing the album?

Rahman Dukes comes to us from MTV News. He started making calls and going through our different sources and then he got to Timbaland, one of the producers. And Timbaland had a very good healthy discussion with us. We had a good, incisive look at the whole thing.

In a crowded marketplace, where do you see room for Revolt?

I think Sean [Combs] accurately spoke about a ‘white space' being out there. A space where music is not being played enough. And also just a lesson from my time at ESPN. People who are fans, they can't get enough. When people are fans of an athletic team or they are fans of a sport, they want more of it. And it's the same thing with music fans. We often forget the etymology of the word fan. It comes from ‘fanatic.' Folks are passionate about their artist. Folks are passionate about how they feel about things. You talk about Katy Perry. She has a set of fans that feel, truly feel Katy Perry. Rihanna has her own navy. Rihanna has a navy that will stand up and ride for her. And you want to kind of benefit from that. You want to make sure you are working with that.

Your core audience is millenials. Is there any other particular mix within that?

It's 18 to 24, a young, music-loving audience. An audience where music is their culture. Music is part of their DNA. We'll cover all music, not just hip-hop. Now, I don't want to push the ESPN metaphor too far. But hip-hop would be like what the NFL is to ESPN. We'll cover a lot of it. But you have R&B and you have pop music. You have alternative music and you have an emerging [electronic dance music] scene. You have country. And you also have many other strains. All of this is ours to play in.

Anything that touches the world of music.

Yes. Bruno Mars doing the Super Bowl. That's something that we're gonna cover. Not just him doing the Super Bowl but also the mechanics behind and things like that. The adventures of Kanye West and Jimmy Kimmel. We're gonna cover it and we're gonna have fun with it. We want to be serious journalists. But we want to have fun. We don't want to be so staid in the coverage of this kind of stuff that people don't enjoy what we are doing.

Is Sean going to have a presence?

He won't be on the air much at the beginning. Publicly, he'll speak for the network. He'll speak of what we're trying to do. He'll be a bellwether to artists and creators, people around the world. And he is committed. This is a committed situation. This is not like, ‘Oh, gee. I have a network.' This is a 27-hour-a-day situation.

What about operationally?

He's one of the best marketers in history. Not cable marketers. Marketers, period. He is a force in social media and he's been an excellent business partner. So to do what we're doing, he'll be involved. He'll make some appearances on the network and such. But he has a certain way he's going to do that. Because the whole discussion we're having when we go to the fans is ‘this is your network.' It's by the fans, for the fans. And I've heard him say this, ‘You can't be good at your craft and not be a fan of music. You can't just be a fan of your music.' I remember for years going to Sean's parties. When you were at his parties, he didn't just play his music. He would play whoever was banging, killing it at the time. ‘They're killing it. Run it back. Run it back.' He's a fan of music. So if you make a network for fans and you stay true to that mission that we want to be for the fans, then you can't have it be from one person's point of view. We got to have as much dialogue as possible. That's what music is. It creates dialogue. It creates discussion. Do you like it? Do you not like it? And that's the kind of thing that I think is missing in the music game.

With your on-air talent, it doesn't seem like you have made big deals with well-known people as of yet.

We have a few names that we plan to announce soon. We have a few folks that are names-not household names, but neighborhood names.

What about advertisers?

We're very good. We have seven or eight advertisers that are locked for launch. And we'll probably close one or two more before we launch. And then going into our team, we're very well set up. Bob Gruters was in command at Univision and then he came over. And we've got one or two other Univision folks and people from other places. We put together a good little crew.

Where is the studio located?

We're in the studio at Hollywood and Highland, the old TV Guide studio and our corporate office is in NYC [at Combs' headquarters at 55th and Broadway]. We turned conference room in New York into Studio B. We are moving locations in New York soon and are in the process of building a studio in April or May.

What kind of media mix will you have in marketing the launch?

A lot of digital. Some television. But we use most of our own air for that. We would use events and those who evangelize. And then certain secret-sauce methods that have worked for years with [Combs holdings] Ciroc and Bad Boy. All of them rotate around the social by design, making sure that everything from content creation to the network lend themselves to social media.

You are building toward a TV Everywhere presence through Time Warner, and you obviously will use the Revolt website as a key platform. How do these platforms work together?

At Revolt, we don't see it as a linear network and a social presence. They're all woven together. It's content. It's Revolt. It's one ecosystem. So too often you say, ‘OK, here's our network and here's our Twitter feed and here's this ...' The way that people we're going after consume things, they see them on Twitter. They see them on Instagram. Wherever they see them, the ability to have them interface as quickly as possible or with as little friction as possible is really the goal.

You mean friction in terms of hurdles to the experience?

If I see something on Twitter, and I press the link, I go right to YouTube or wherever the short link wants me to go. That's frictionless.

Comcast is the latest company to partner with Twitter with that kind of goal.

Technology is so good that you can get to where you don't need a cable subscription. So, that's the challenge, to avoid that. It's not so much for the good people who pay their cable bills it's for the folks that are very good in technology. You can go around the world and not have that. But I think that for music, for what we're doing, it's a great environment. Social by design is not a slogan, it's just how we built the whole place. I also feel like if you look at viewership and television,n viewership and social media-the effect that television viewership has on social media is symbiotic. With Breaking Bad, for example, you can't talk enough about it. I read just reams and reams about it and it made the show something I had to watch. And if I couldn't watch it, I was DVRing it. And I'll probably be one of those guys to buy the whole thing because I loved it. So at the end of the day, you want to have as much of that as possible. What ESPN has done with SportsCenter and the SportsCenter feeds and things like that is something we want to emulate. It's something we want to make sure we're doing with users. And we are.

What does your programming day look like at launch?

There are three big blocks that we'll have. We'll have music videos. Then we'll have a set that's a heavy portion of shoulder programming, basically programming that's built around music. The State of Music is a program about the business of music. Revolt Live that will essentially be a roundtable show about the day in music. And then we'll have reality and access shows going backstage and behind the scenes.

Music is more open-source now compared to when MTV started, when it was a consolidated group of labels calling the shots. How will Revolt take advantage of that?

We want to be about breaking acts and breaking news. You can get what Russell Simmons is doing right now with digital. You're going to get a number of entrepreneurs with digital. You don't have traditional record labels. Because the need to press records and do the physical distribution that used to be there is much less now. When it comes to studio techniques and what it sounds like, I've been in too many sessions with artists right now that you used to have the big boards and now they have a Mac with Pro Tools. And they're good. They're killing it. It's not like, ‘Oh well, they're making a certain quality sacrifice.' They're doing it on a big joint with these things. The whole system has changed due to technology. Macklemore is an example. Not a label guy. Put that music out. A number of different folks come up that way. So, we've got to be prepared.

Is there a submission system? Is there an email address?

We have all that set up now. It's gotten some press. The New Yorker did a piece wondering, ‘are you paying for this?' So, we discussed that. We have that kind of front door. But also we have folks that are working for us that if something is banging in Atlanta, you better know. When Jeremy Lin went wild last year or two years ago, whenever it was, there were basketball journalists who said, ‘Don't get caught flat-footed. This kid is coming. This kid is real.' So, that's the kind of thing that you've got to have. Sometimes there's a video that gets on YouTube and the trajectory of it goes from 10 to 1,000 to 400,000. You can see that there is heat there. People like it for whatever reason. And you have to investigate. People now have these mixed tapes. People used to put out albums. And you have these DJs. And somehow that's how songs get released and how new artists get discovered and stars are broken.

The music business hurt itself tremendously by not reacting well to technology. To some extent it has not recovered. So why launch a cable network devoted to something so troubled?

The truth is that music consumption is at an all-time high. It's either back to or very close to where it was in about 2003 when things started to get bad. So what has happened is that the business model has shifted aggressively. The business model before was driven by physical goods and all the other manifestations of music were ancillary. Those are called ancillary. Now, what was ancillary is now the primary. So for years, downloads were the big thing. You still had physical goods. But downloads were the big thing. And now it's not downloads. It's streams. And streaming and all these things have different revenue based on a whole set of calculations. But in terms of people listening to music, the appetite is as strong as it's ever been. The reason why I think we will be successful at it is because our business model is designed for us to be playing music. Our business model isn't designed to get this big huge rating. When you go down the original show path, original content, you are making pilots and you're doing these different things. You're not playing music.