Inside the Hollywood studios where Revolt Live is being taped, a sign in searing red reads: “Every generation needs a Revolt.” Supporting this theory is a balcony of 100 quick-to-applaud, leather-clad audience members, currently transfixed by transgender New York rapper Mykki Blanco, a transgressive artist attempting to catwalk between Busta Rhymes and Grace Jones.
Blanco waxes about the art of cross-dressing and the post–Lil B era of rap. Other segments on today's program include a look at the Oscars; a Skype interview about the new Beck album; and a live performance from New York genre-bending rapper Theophilus London.
“Revolt Live” is the flagship show from Revolt TV, a network that co-owner Diddy has described as the “ESPN of music.” It launched in October to 25 million Time Warner Cable and Comcast subscribers in most major American cities. Its goal isn't merely to offer a televised platform for mainstream artists such as Rick Ross and Wiz Khalifa but also to edify 25 million households about vibrant underground cultures and subgenres — the sort of stuff usually confined to the Internet. [A correction was made to this paragraph. See editor's note below.]
“After the game is over, you turn on SportsCenter. If Outkast reunites, we want you to turn on Revolt,” says Val Boreland, the network's executive vice president of programming and production. “It doesn't necessarily have to be about music. It can be about culture. When Nelson Mandela died, most people turned on CNN. But maybe the young millennials will turn on Revolt to see what our take is.” [A correction was made to this paragraph. See editor's note below.]
Her Outkast example isn't hypothetical. The reunion news of the Southern rap legends was the first scoop that Revolt broke live on national TV. “We'd had the story for a while and published it online around the same time as Billboard. Then I reported it on television; we put it on YouTube, and almost every subsequent online report cited Revolt and embedded our video,” Amrit Singh says.
Singh is Revolt's music and culture editor and de facto Kurt Loder, offering news hits on the hour. Singh also hosts the upcoming program State of Music program, which will feature serious discussions with artists about present and future sounds. Before joining Revolt, he was executive editor of music blog progenitor Stereogum.
“There's an authority that comes with being on TV that still supersedes online,” Singh adds.
Since launching five months ago, Revolt's programming has featured live news reports, music videos, daily programs devoted to indie music and hip-hop, and Revolt Live, which launched in January. A second studio exists in New York City, but the network's creative locus is L.A.
If conventional thinking bets against the commercial viability of music television in the YouTube age, Revolt positions itself as the first network custom-built for the new rules. Its target audience is Internet-savvy 16- to 25-year-olds of both sexes, who love all genres of music — a demographic often considered too crafty or indigent to pay for cable. Breaking news and live performances are immediately reverse-engineered to Internet video and filtered back into the social media fishbowl.
You'd expect nothing less from Combs, the impresario behind Bad Boy, Sean John, and Ciroc vodka. Over the last 20 years, few have been better at branding than the half-a-billion-dollar man who didn't actually invent the remix but made everyone believe he did. (Combs declined to comment for this story.)
Combs hatched the idea for Revolt shortly after learning of Comcast's plans to carry four minority-owned stations, under a diversity program instituted by the FCC as part of the terms of the cable giant's 2011 acquisition of NBC Universal.
One of Combs' early decrees was that Revolt employees should watch Aaron Sorkin's HBO series Newsroom to understand the fast-paced banter, intensity and passion that he hoped to convey on-air.
Combs appears on air only sporadically, lest it become the Diddy Network. Still, his connections ensure that you never forget that it's Diddy's Network.
“It's possible to survive in the music space, but it has to be done right. There's a more limited audience, so [Revolt] will have to drill in deep and really connect with viewers,” says TV industry analyst Jeff Kagan.
Kagan notes Revolt's primary competition in the television music market: VH1, Fuse, Mark Cuban's AXS TV. Combs' company has yet to become a Nielsen-rated network, which means its popularity is impossible to gauge. This affords it the freedom to take risks and experiment with different formulas and combinations.
“What's helpful is that Revolt has a brand-name [boss]. That's important,” Kagan says. “Combs' brand connection with customers gives them a lot of potential.” [A correction was made to this paragraph. See editor's note below.]
Combs understands this well, hyping the network at SXSW and helping land a performance by Drake for its widely covered Super Bowl party. A Revolt banner even flies prominently in Combs' new Fiat commercial. Not to mention Diddy's nearly 10 Million Twitter followers, who are constantly inundated with Revolt promotional blasts.
“If there's one thing that [Combs] contributes to most at Revolt, it's setting and holding us to his own very high standards. There were so many times that he'd say, 'I'm not feeling that,' or 'That's not on point,' ” says Andy Schuon, the network's co-founder and president. “So many people put together programming and slap a logo on it. For us, it's brand first.”
The former head of programming at MTV and MTV2, Schuon presided over MTV's gradual shift from music programming to shows that corporate parent Viacom could spin into mega-properties.
Ironically, Schuon says his old employer's abdication of the throne has given Revolt the opportunity to seize the vacancy.
“Eventually, [Combs'] goal is for us to win an Emmy,” Boreland says. “The question is, what's the Revolt version of a Breaking Bad?”
Over the last few months, the network has begun producing original documentaries, including ones on Wale and Pharrell. Executives say more are planned, but add that the month-old Revolt Live is the main focus at the moment — the product that best embodies the network's ideals.
As Singh points out, Revolt's on-air talent could double as a United Colors of Benetton ad.
Revolt Live features two hosts, Sibley Scoles and DJ Damage. The former is a bleached blond, Mohawk-sporting, “punk MC” who moonlights around L.A. as rapper Sib Vicious. The latter is a former radio host plucked from the Philadelphia airwaves, whose stage temperament comes off like a cooler Nick Cannon. At their best, they banter like a rap duo trading bars.
The show's pacing is crisp, the hosts are knowledgeable and well prepared; the flashing lights and set-piece shifts are relentless and dizzying. It feels like you're watching The Situation Room re-envisioned for the club — if Wolf Blitzer were a leggy female rapper who looks as if she could star in a reboot of Tank Girl.
“I want to take rap and use it to free people to think about and address bigger ideas,” Blanco tells the crowd at the taping.
The same could be said of the network itself. For it to stick around, it must succeed in using music as a launching point to engage millennials in a broader cultural conversation.
At the moment, watching an episode of Revolt Live almost makes you feel as if you're living in the future — then you realize it looks more like the modern urban present than almost anything else on TV. And by the time the audience disperses, finds their cars and makes it home, it will already be up online — where Revolt hopes that you'll watch it again.
A previous version of this story contained some inaccurate information. The station is in 25 million homes, Diddy is its co-owner and chairman, and Val Boreland is EVP of programming and production. We regret the errors.