For hip-hop mogul Sean Combs, the roots of his latest venture date back to 2006, when he was faced with the prospect of performing on "Dancing with the Stars.
At the time, the Grammy winner was plotting the release of his album "Press Play," and found himself scraping around for ways to promote it. He had sold millions of albums in the heyday of music video. And now he was knocking on the unlikely door of ABC's dancing contest.
"It was ridiculous," recalls Mr. Combs, then known as P. Diddy. "There was no place for us to go."
Mr. Combs says he became fixated on filling that void: on recreating something like MTV in its early days, when it broke in new stars and helped genres like rap go mainstream with an 18-to-34-year-old audience. Now, seven years later, he is launching his own music cable channel, Revolt TV. Featuring music of all genres, the 24-hour channel will spotlight live performances, music videos, news, chat and social media-driven shows.
The target audience, he says, is the current 18-to-34 generation of so-called Millennials. It couldn't be a tougher time to woo this mercurial group in traditional media. They have been ditching the living-room screen in droves, turning instead to online sites for entertainment. YouTube has emerged as the dominant force in the music world, as new music-focused cable-television entrants, like Fuse, have struggled to connect with music fans. "The cable-television business has come up with the Boogeyman theory that kids don't want to watch TV," he says. "Kids don't want to watch TV because there's nothing for them to watch."Michal Czerwonka for The Wall Street Journal Left to right, new-network executives Andy Schuon, Sean Combs and Keith Clinkscales, watch a talent reel at Revolt TV's studio.
Mr. Combs is the latest in a flurry of big names to take on cable television. Oprah Winfrey traded in her mass-market broadcast platform for the niche world of cable, only to discover that her viewers didn't follow her. Former NBA star Magic Johnson launched Aspire in June of last year, a channel aimed at underserved African Americans. And Ryan Seacrest invested in AXS TV, a channel for live events that has so far been a slow burner.
Seated in a hotel suite overlooking Manhattan, dressed all in black, Mr. Combs described what he thinks has long been missing from television: a credible source for new music. The shift of MTV to reality shows left music without a platform to break out stars at a time when music consumption has become more visual. While YouTube has given Millennials the freedom to explore, they've increasingly turned to sources such as festivals to discover what's hot.
"Millennials are the most misunderstood ever. No one knows how to engage and define them," he says. "That's what I know how to do."
Now 43, Mr. Combs has built an empire around 18-to-34-year-olds. Starting out as an intern at New York's Uptown Records at 19, he climbed the ranks to become a music producer, developing such artists as Mary J Blige and Jodeci, and then launching his own label, Bad Boy. A power struggle with Uptown's general manager got him fired and he moved Bad Boy to Arista Records, taking with him artists such as the Notorious B.I.G. He went on to perform himself, recording his first album under the name Puff Daddy in 1997—his multi-platinum "No Way Out."Revolt TV Stills from the channel's YouTube clips: Andy Harms interviews Lorde, left.
But his ambition was to be more than just a producer and performer. In 1998, Mr. Combs started a clothing line called Sean John. Perfumes—"I Am King" and the interestingly-named "Unforgivable Woman"—followed, as did several name changes, first to P. Diddy, then to Diddy and finally back to his birth name Sean Combs. He later bought the Enyce clothing brand from Liz Claiborne, launched the Blue Flame marketing agency and got into the bottled water business with Mark Wahlberg. But his biggest money-spinner was a partnership with Diageo to develop the Ciroc vodka brand. "Alcohol…produces endless amounts of money," says Andre Harrell, who hired Mr. Combs at Uptown and is now vice chairman at Sean Combs Enterprises.
In its 2013 Forbes Five list of hip-hop's wealthiest artists, Forbes estimated that Mr. Combs was No. 1 with a net worth of $580 million, a figure Mr. Combs says is "in the ballpark." (Jay-Z came in second in the rankings with $475 million)
Mr. Combs is putting up much of the money for Revolt TV, but has a minority partner in a fund managed by Highbridge Principal Strategies. Launching a cable channel can run as much as $100 million—Mr. Combs declines to comment on the cost.
Mr. Combs says TV is the toughest venture he's taken on yet. Three weeks ago, he says, he turned to Oprah at a party held by music impresario Jimmy Iovine and asked, "Do you recognize this look on my face?" She said she did, telling him it's a challenging undertaking.Revolt TV Revolt TV presenter Sibley
Mr. Combs originally tried to buy Comcast's G4, a channel that started out with a videogame focus and an ambition to lure an MTV-style crowd. When that didn't pan out, he made a pitch for one of 10 minority-owned channels that Comcast agreed to carry as part of its merger with NBCUniversal. To help him, he contacted a buddy from MTV's early days, Andy Schuon.
With other executives in tow, they traveled to Philadelphia to make a three-hour presentation to Comcast. Last year they got the green light.
When it launches on Monday, Revolt TV will appear in 25 million homes. It will be part of Time Warner Cable's basic digital tier and Comcast's preferred digital offering, meaning subscribers will automatically get the channel when they sign up to either of those packages.
In the lead up to the launch, Mr. Combs says he has been holding roundtables with Millennials. One complaint that struck him: Radio has lost touch with what they like. "It's proven every weekend—you go to any festival and see someone you've never heard before and 200,000 people know every word of their songs," Mr. Combs says. He cites as an example R&B singer Frank Ocean, who got little airplay but was one of the most anticipated performers at Coachella last year.
Val Boreland, Revolt TV's head of programming and a Comedy Central alum, says Revolt has been priming its audience on its website, a YouTube channel and social media in recent months. A snapshot of this week's offering: video of a hip-hop festival in Atlanta and a newsfeed that included reports of Justin Bieber attacking a DJ and a mock brawl between Mr. Combs and hip-hop artist J. Cole.
Among shows she has been developing at the studio in Los Angeles: a daily on alternative rock hosted by a music programmer Mr. Combs plucked from obscurity. There will also be a version for hip hop, covering what's breaking, new artists and festivals. They plan to experiment with other blocks of airtime: for "Power to the People," for instance, they'll shape programming based on real-time fan feedback.
One question is, why go multigenre? Ms. Boreland says their research showed that more than any other generation, Millennials cross genres, thanks to the Internet. "They don't just like Jay-Z or Arctic Monkeys," she says.
Another question is what kind of on-air role Mr. Combs will play. So far he's only saying he'll pop into the studio occasionally, perhaps when a friend appears on air or when there's a message he wants to deliver to viewers.
"We've been careful not to make it the Diddy network," says Mr. Schuon. Still, they know Mr. Combs is their best asset: "We'd love to see him host a program," he adds.
Write to Merissa Marr at email@example.com
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