I WANT MY KTV No one told the Karmaloop crew that streetwear vendors can’t branch out to Web entertainment and, now, to cable TV.
To simply describe Karmaloop as the most trafficked Web retailer for streetwear is to sell Selkoe short. His site attracts more than four million visitors a month, and retains them largely on the strength of the Karmaloop TV portal, which is perpetually updated with Web-video quickies relevant to music, culture, fashion, and the beautiful badasses who inspire young people. It's not just about the merchandise.
In the next few years, convergence plans like KTV's will become commonplace, as computers and cable boxes continue to merge. At this point, though, Selkoe — along with a bevy of muses and investors — gets to plant a flag in uncharted territory. Plus, he just pulled the plug on Karmaloop's social network, Jungle Life, after a two-year, $2 million investment; and after doing battle in the saturated new-media marketplace, cable seems like an empty playing field.
"I never even thought we'd have this kind of opportunity, since [cable] is such a closed world," says Selkoe, whose elevator pitch describes Karmaloop fans as "vergers" — trendy 18-to-34 year olds who spend an annual $90 billion on gear and entertainment. "But we figured we could do this since we have so much access to influential people in that demographic. The Internet shook up a lot of things, and the cable industry kind of gave up on younger viewers, thinking they were only going to be looking online."
Selkoe is famous for performing marketing miracles — a former Boston bureaucrat with a public-policy degree from Harvard, since 2000 he grew Karmaloop from a basement dream to a $50 million behemoth. That said, he didn't enter this new endeavor blindly, expecting to transform into a television mogul on a whim. For all things cable-industry-related, Selkoe relies on KTV president Katie McEnroe, a former executive at Lionsgate TV and AMC Networks, and a co-founder of horror-film Web site FEARnet.
McEnroe first approached Selkoe two years ago to license the name Karmaloop for a doomed hipster-themed television channel that was drafted at a corporate conference table. Selkoe hadn't ever seriously considered cable, but that changed after he declined the offer, and McEnroe countered with a deal that would allow Karmaloop to control programming. A year later, KTV is backed by a $3 billion private equity firm, and is soon to arrive on your flat screen.
For programming, KTV marketing director Greg Weinstein says that, at least at first, roughly 80 percent of content will consist of cult classics like Beat Street and Shaw Brothers kung-fu flicks. They'll also focus on the ordinary routines of extraordinary characters: "People want to know what L.L. Cool J is eating for breakfast," says Weinstein. On the show front, producers are spinning Karmaloop Web-video favorites like the witty trend-spotting Daily Loop into episode-length reels, and harvesting other ideas from around the Net. For KTV's flagship theatrical program, Selkoe commissioned the Funny or Die smash The SkinNY, a reality-drama blend about two delusional social-climbing super bitches played by comics Jonny Sollis and the Fat Jew in drag.
"This culture is a fusion of dancehall, hip-hop, electro, and hardcore — the influences are very sophisticated and diverse," says Selkoe. "Whether it's something from Bollywood or an old show from the 1970s, there's a thread that runs through these things that makes sense. Some people might not understand why we have a Filipino slasher flick next to a documentary about hip-hop in Nigeria, but it works for our audience."
The conceptual and business tasks of birthing a new station are nearing completion — rights have been secured for movies, service systems are on board, and in addition to traditional cable outlets, Karmaloop is even set to distribute content via Xbox (they'll be the third such provider, after Netflix and ESPN). Still, the near future holds a lot questions for KTV. Will MTV sniff this and stop sucking for long enough to pose a challenge? Can Karmaloop's 50,000-plus "brand ambassadors," who promote the site online and around the planet, push consumers to their television sets? Will there be a show to compete for the affection of bombshell model (and Karmaloop Web TV host) Kelly Karloff, and where might one sign up?
It's a whole new wired world out there for Selkoe, but he seems equipped for changing times — a lesson to any aspiring moguls with fresh ideas, a camcorder, and an arsenal of will power. In a way, he's been plotting this since day one.
"If you look at the earliest business plans I wrote for Karmaloop, it says that we're about more than just retail," says Selkoe. "We're a full-fledged media property — we've always thought of ourselves like that. . . . We have an existing brand, an underserved market, a lot of talent, and now, a lot of people with experience in this medium. At the end of the day, Karmaloop is still about selling clothes, but there's no better place than cable to get a concentrated audience. Hopefully when we get that audience, they'll realize that things like Karmaloop TV can start right here — in Boston."
Chris Faraone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @fara1.