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Sean (Diddy) Combs is promoting his new network, Revolt TV, to television critics in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Chris Pizzello/The Associated Press)
Sean (Diddy) Combs is promoting his new network, Revolt TV, to television critics in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Chris Pizzello/The Associated Press)

JOHN DOYLE

It may be a fool’s errand, but TV channels stalk millennial eyeballs Add to ...

If you get me started on millennials and television, I can go on and on. So let’s get started.

Sean Combs came here the other day and made a pitch to TV critics, a passionate speech that included some definitive statements about television, youth and media. He was talking mainly about millennials.

The point of the visit by the music and clothing mogul, sometimes known as Puff Daddy or P. Diddy, was to alert us to the looming launch in the United States of his new cable channel, Revolt TV. Absent was the swagger of Combs the hip-hop god and very much present was Combs the salesman. He worked the room, shaking hands and introducing himself personally to dozens of critics. Then he declared, “My mission is to bring kids back to television.” In a speech that was a curious mix of humility and bravado, he boasted, “When young people disengaged from TV and cable, people didn’t understand it. But I understood it.”

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Then he talked about cable TV and what would happen if people had pure choice, not bundles of channels: “You’d keep CNN, or you’d keep Fox if you were a Republican, and you would keep ESPN and probably keep The Weather Channel. Why would you keep those four? Because they are focused, they give you what you want. If it’s news you wanted, you went to CNN. If it’s sports, you went to ESPN. If it’s music you want, and you are a millennial, you are homeless. You have nowhere to go.”

His point, and he spouted statistics to prove it, is that music is the one thing that unites consumers in the 18-to-34 age group, and his boast was that Revolt TV will be the main television destination for those millennials.

He’s not the only one in search of those millennial eyeballs. It may be a fool’s errand to attempt to capture that generation, but Combs and others are determined to try.

There are a lot of millennials out there. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates 76 million people fall into the category. And it’s a fascinating category – about 40 per cent of U.S. millennials are African-American, Latino, Asian or from a racially mixed family.

Fact is, this generation, raised in the digital age, does not consume TV as its parents did. They won’t watch commercials, won’t watch at scheduled times and are used to consuming TV fare on multiple platforms – from live sports on big-screen TVs in bars to binge-watching episodes of HBO’s Girls on an iPad. For them, television programing isn’t something that emanates from a TV set in a home. It’s something found on Facebook or watched on a smartphone while riding the bus. As Combs put it, “It’s not that TV is going nowhere. TV is going to be everywhere, including the toilet and sidewalk.”

Combs says music is the glue that holds the millennials together in terms of consumer taste. He may be right, but he’s definitely correct about one thing: Cable TV has abandoned music for the millennials. Combs was careful not to outright dismiss MTV (he’s a music mogul after all), but it was clear what he meant when he said Revolt TV “will not exist to air just a bunch of reality shows.” At other events to promote Revolt, he said his channel will “step in where MTV left off.”

Evidence of MTV’s flight from its music origins came mere hours after Combs spoke. MTV presented critics with its new fall lineup, such as it is. It presented two new cheesy reality shows, continuing the tradition established by Jersey Shore, Teen Mom, Punk’d and The Hills. One is Generation Cryo, about a group of teen siblings fathered by an anonymous sperm donor. The other is Nurses, about a group of travelling nurses who work at a hospital for a few weeks before moving on. The trailer suggested that it’s mostly about their after-work partying and sexual liaisons. Not a note of music was heard. These shows, like most of what MTV airs, are meant for the mid-teen audience.

The whiff of MTV’s cheesiness still hung in the air when along came a new channel called Pivot to present its wares. Launching on Aug. 1, Pivot is owned by Participant Media, the company established by Jeffrey Skoll, eBay’s first president. Its mission is to make commercial but socially relevant entertainment and has funded such movies as Syriana, The Help and the documentary Fast Food Nation. With Pivot, it says the mission is “serving passionate millennials (18-34) with a diverse slate of talent and a mix of original series, acquired programming, films and documentaries.”

Pivot’s pitch to the assembled TV critics, given by its young (well, thirtysomething) president, Evan Shapiro, was as passionate as that by Combs and just as grandiose. “We are a next-generation television network for the new, greatest generation, millennials,” Shapiro said. “Where other people may see navel-gazing, entitled narcissists, we have a hero generation ready to take on the challenges that are present in the world, challenges they didn’t create.”

Shapiro sees some symbolic significance in the fact that Pivot will launch exactly 32 years – same day and time – after MTV went on air in 1981. The message is Pivot is the MTV of millennials.

“We’re creating a pluralistic version of the primary screen,” Shapiro said. By that he means a Pivot app, which will allow customers to watch the channel on any device or platform at any time. Entire seasons of a show will be available, making it possible to watch a show by episode or binge-watch in one big gulp.

Social media will be a vital part of Pivot. Shapiro said television’s fear of the Internet is misplaced. It doesn’t matter that many younger viewers prefer the Internet to TV. That interest can be harnessed to help make TV, specifically Pivot, something that matters.

He said Pivot’s flagship news program will be called Take Part Live, “a nightly talk show live for, with, and by the next generation.”

It will be hosted by Jacob Soboroff, formerly of The Huffington Post, and Soboroff said, “I think that people now more than ever before want to get engaged. They want to get involved and they want to see change that they have effected themselves. First and foremost, you’re going to be entertained. But you’re going to be able to take part when you’re watching this program and we’re going to give you information. You’re going to laugh and you’re going to cry and you’re going to want to punch somebody occasionally when you’re watching the news programs. And that’s what we’re going to give people – that opportunity. We’re going to say if you care about drones, these are the people you got to go talk to. If you care about immigration, these are the movements that are happening right now, and those people will be guests on our show as well.”

None of this sounds truly revolutionary. Many news shows include e-mails and tweets from viewers. And Pivot’s main entertainment program, hosted by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt and called HitRECord, will invite viewers to contribute music performance, art, dance and comedy. The audience will create the content. Combs promised something similar for Revolt TV and while it sounds nice, it also promises a nightmare of amateur content that will have to filtered by somebody.

Pivot’s biggest catch is Meghan McCain, daughter of Senator John McCain, an author and well known as a TV pundit. She said, “I came to Pivot because I think there has to be some kind of middle ground between the Kardashians and C-SPAN [the U.S. channel that airs proceedings from the House and Senate]. When I was growing up, MTV News was loud, proud, really inspired my life in a really real way. That doesn’t happen any more. I want to give people information, but not talk down to them.”

Look at the Pivot schedule, mind you, and there is a lot of filler programming. Pivot believes that some acquired programming from other countries will be hits. There’s Please Like Me, from Australia, a comedy about a young man having what Pivot calls “a quarter-life crisis.” And it has Little Mosque on the Prairie. Yes, CBC’s cozy little comedy. Pivot seems to think that Little Mosque is a radical show, perfect for millennials.

It isn’t. And, really, nothing about Revolt TV or Pivot seems truly new or engaging to those elusive millennials. Everyone is just guessing. But here’s a hard fact – a study by the Center for American Progress anticipates that millennials will be the first American generation to do less well economically than their parents.

In other words, as a critic noted after the Pivot presentation, “The audience they want isn’t buying Buicks. Who is going to advertise?”

Too true. And somebody needs to get started on solving that problem before assuming what millennials want on TV.

 

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