Minority-owned cable networks hope to blaze a trail

Above: Robert Rodriguez is founder of the El Rey Network.
El Rey Network
Above: Robert Rodriguez is founder of the El Rey Network.

PASADENA, Calif. — Just as many viewers are cutting the cable cord, a pair of new minority-owned networks are hoping to restore the connection.

Those two networks, REVOLT and El Rey Network, met with reporters here recently as part of the Television Critics Association winter press tour. Both outlets emerged out of a deal that the FCC made during the Comcast merger with NBC Universal to distribute minority-owned networks.

REVOLT, launched in October 2013 and currently airing in roughly 20 million homes, is a music channel founded by Sean “Diddy” Combs targeting millennials with original programming, including a mix of music videos from several genres (from hip-hop to EDM to country to alternative rock) and live news and entertainment shows. The El Rey Network, launched in December 2013 and currently airing in nearly 40 million homes — thanks, in part, to a partnership with Univision — was created by director Robert Rodriguez (“Sin City,” the “Spy Kids” franchise). Rodriguez says the El Rey Network will aim for “English-speaking Hispanic-Americans” specifically. The filmmaker also expects to attract a wider audience whose interests align with his eclectic tastes, which encompass everything from horror to cult films to Mexican wrestling.


After a few months on the air focusing primarily on videos, REVOLT is now ramping up its programming. On Jan. 27 the network will debut its flagship program, “REVOLT Live!,” hosted by personalities Sibley and DJ Damage. The show aims to be a sort of new millennium take on “Total Request Live!” that will air at 5 and 8 p.m. from a new studio at Hollywood and Highland in L.A. The network is also launching a morning show, “The Breakfast Club,” in March that will air from 6-9 a.m. out of a studio in New York.

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“I love seeing music on TV and the videos and the whole flow of it,” said REVOLT CEO Keith Clinkscales, who has a long history in both magazine publishing with VIBE and TV at ESPN. “When I went to the MTV Video Music Awards, it was shocking to me that there were videos that I had not seen before, so that gave me a boost. And I remember Sean [Combs] calling right after and saying, ‘That really helped us because it shows that there are a lot of great videos that people just don’t see.’ ”

In addition to the music video programming, REVOLT president Andy Schuon, a former MTV executive, said the network’s goal is “to give artists a platform for their music and to create a place where fans connect and have an ongoing conversation about the music industry.” Whether it’s discussion around Beyoncé’s surprise album release, introductions to new artists like Jake Bugg, or buzzed about tours, REVOLT hopes to help spur it along.

For Rodriguez, the inspiration for the El Rey Network was threefold and began with his desire to create something for his five kids, who didn’t see themselves represented frequently on television. “I thought this was an opportunity to build something that hadn’t been done before, which was to create a mainstream network that also catered to the growing English-speaking Hispanic audience, because that’s what I’ve been doing through my whole film career,” he said. “You don’t think of ‘Desperado’ or ‘Sin City’ or ‘Spy Kids’ as being Hispanic films, but they are. They’re for everyone to enjoy.”

“Second, I wanted to create a place that was a home for people who were diverse, young, vital, filmmakers, artists, writers, actors, a place that they could come and share their sensibilities and have a direct pipeline into people’s homes,” he said.


Finally, Rodriguez just wanted to share some of his favorites.

“I always had a personal television network at home,” he said of a hard drive on which he kept films and TV shows like John Carpenter’s “The Fog” and “The X-Files.” “It was very soothing just to see my favorite things playing. And people would come in and say, ‘What’s that that you have on?’ ‘That’s my own personal television network.’ And it was a joke, but it was actually really kind of cool. And I thought, I wish somebody would curate a network where everything you saw attached to your sensibility and you’d know that you would be taken care of. And that was another reason to jump into this.”

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
Sean “Diddy” Combs founded the music channel REVOLT to target millennials with original programming.

In addition to repurposing existing films and TV shows — sometimes with new elements including introductory commentary from the participants — Rodriguez has several originals in the pipeline, including “From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series,” based on his film, premiering March 11. The network is also bullish on a series about Lucha Libre from reality mastermind Mark Burnett (“Survivor,” “The Apprentice”) and “Matador,” a drama about a man who is a professional soccer player by day and a spy by night, from producers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (“Star Trek,” “Sleepy Hollow.”)

All involved know that it is a tough time to be launching a new network but are hopeful about the long-term prospects and potential impact they could have.

“Anytime there’s a new market that people discover, someone’s got to go serve that market and that’s something that we’re going to do,” says REVOLT’s Clinkscales of the millennial audience. “The cable business is a healthy, strong, vibrant business. Yes, they have challenges. What business model doesn’t? But that’s a problem that we can solve, and also we have other tools. When we can’t get on in certain markets we can go on Twitter and Instagram and YouTube and on our site and we can get it out there.”


“We all knew that nothing would really change until we had our own distribution,” said Rodriguez in reference to minority ownership. “Once we could just go right into people’s homes and let them decide, that’s when we would have change. That’s why I had to come be a part of this because once this works there will be more networks that other people will imitate, but someone has to be first to set how it’s done. So that’s what’s great about what Sean [Combs] is doing and what we’re trying to do here, is to show how we can make it work, so there can be imitation, so there can be more, because we want more.”

Sarah Rodman can be reached at