Shane Smith, Vice Media co-founder and CEO, is not a man accustomed to taking things lying down. And yet there he was one Friday evening last month, admittedly with a few ales in him, lying prone on stage at Manhattan’s Chelsea Piers, talking up his company’s virtues and history through a microphone before a packed house of mainly millennials.
It was the last of the 2016 NewFront events, and Smith was heaping the attention on Viceland, the few-months-old cable network that took over the dial space of A+E Networks’s unplugged H2 channel, premiering in 70 million homes. Since H2 was preaching to a whole other, older demo, it made sense for Smith to tout from the floor that Viceland had experienced the “fastest f--king aging down of a network in the history of television.”
A few moments later, Smith rose to his feet and soon began shouting the lyrics to 1970s punk band Sham 69’s “If the Kids Are United.” With the night’s house band playing along, Smith loudly sang the chorus, “If the kids are united/then we’ll never be divided.”
It played like a fitting rallying cry for Smith’s new millennials-focused cable network. But the man has quite the task in front of him with Viceland, and a climb that could run at the same angle as the six verticals he talked about launching at the NewFronts.
Smith has said Viceland will accomplish what many regard as two of the most dificult goals in current-day television: make the kind of content that will lure lots of persnickety millennials to traditional live and C3 viewing, and create a successful new cable network in a world of skinny bundles and cord-cutters.
The digital media company is valued at about $4.5 billion, but it’s playing with a bunch of high-profile, newer-blood investments from such foundational industry concerns as The Walt Disney Co., Hearst and 21st Century Fox, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars each. The pressure to succeed may not yet be high, but how long before the suits start calling Smith and network creative director Spike Jonze with a sigh and suggestions — especially if the Nielsen numbers the network isn’t yet reporting don’t rise?
Granted, it’s early — fittingly enough, Viceland launched on leap day this year — but the safe bet is that a network sporting series with titles such as Gaycation, Weediquette, Balls Deep and F---k, That’s Delicious has the deck stacked against it.
That, of course, is the safe bet. But Smith, who has spent his share of time gambling and imbibing in Las Vegas, isn’t interested in the odds against his platform-agnostic concern making bank. Certainly not at the NewFronts, as he worked the room with a wicked smile, a woman on each arm and a bearded cable executive at his ear.
The Vice Media sensibility is everywhere here: It would be a challenge to find another party that would attract such a radiant mix of power suits, neck tattoos and Founding Father wigs (worn by Vice execs, ready to answer your questions). For Smith, the question comes down to how he measures success, and an answer that offers what he believes is his most abiding weapon.
“I don’t know — having fun. Enjoying myself. Not dying,” he began with a chuckle. “I mean, the usual metrics: Growth, money … but content. If I’m proud of the stuff we’re making, that makes me happiest.”
Smith has every reason to see Viceland’s content as the ultimate game-changer, given the company’s track record for bringing eyeballs to other platforms with a youth-minded élan. The only issue is, the competition is now overwhelmingly crowded for those eyeballs, to the point where, one year after FX Networks CEO John Landgraf declared, “There is simply too much television,” the ability to stand out gets increasingly dificult.
Viceland’s wild card is its long-honed formula for producing cross-platform successes in the years since Vice began as a Canadian magazine in 1994, moving from Montreal to New York in 2001 and continuing its multimedia expansion. The company’s content has reached more than 150 million non-linear viewers to date across all platforms, from video-on-demand to YouTube, from Facebook to Apple TV and other apps.
The hope is that Viceland’s shows — a mix of immersive documentary series and reality fare — will build a homestead on the frontier land of cable. But while the style of shooting may be familiar enough to fans of anything from TMZ to 30 for 30 to Storage Wars, series devoted to subjects from gay lifestyle and travel to marijuana use aren’t, on the surface, quite as common to traditional viewers as, say, Chopped and Love It or List It.
“It doesn’t look like your mother’s cable network,” Bill Carroll, senior vice president and director of content strategy for Katz Television Group, said. “You see a lot of these entities like Vice looking at … [being] available through mainstream media. Whether they’re mainstream is a different conversation.”
In a sense, the more relevant conversations are: Can Viceland bring ad dollars in, despite the fact that the company is not publicly sharing Nielsen figures, and is the content of a quality that people will want to tune in and come back for more?
The list of clients on the network at present includes some big names — Samsung, Unilever, Bank of America, Diageo, T-Mobile and Toyota — including several that have followed the company from earlier digital incarnations to the cable network. The network has also eschewed, by necessity or design, some of the typical spot count numbers for more custom messaging.
“We really believe that when advertisers come to the network, it should be more relevant,” said Guy Slattery, who moved over from his vice president of marketing post at A&E to become GM of Viceland earlier this year. “We try to make custom messaging for our clients that will be on the most relevant platform for them, and a lot of client partners on the digital side come in wanting to work on the network side.”
That includes Unilever’s Tresemmé brand tying in with Broadly, Vice’s vertical that looks at women’s experiences, and Bushmills Black Bush Whiskey in spots with Thomas Morton, the longtime Vice contributor who now hosts Viceland’s investigative series, Balls Deep.
It’s folks such as Morton who are really key to the growth of the cable network, Slattery maintained. Showcasing the kind of filming and editing de rigueur in current docuseries, Viceland’s slate represents the passions of the young filmmakers behind them. Weediquette is correspondent Krishna Andavolu’s take on pot culture; Gaycation follows actress Ellen Page and her friend Ian Daniel exploring LGBTQ culture the world over; and Huang’s World finds Eddie Huang searching for meaning and identity with a healthy serving of food thrown in. The faces are fresh and new, but familiar to fans of Vice platforms. And the content has a sensibility of wonder about it. When Vice World of Sports host Selema Masekela watches a boxing match in the episode “The Boys of Bukom,” about a slum village in Ghana that has produced an inordinate number of fighting champions, his wide-eyed shouts of “whoa!” imply he’s just as amazed as he believes we should be.
“We don’t consider them hosts,” Slattery said. “They’re the people creating the shows, the executive producers. We really believe in finding people with a point of view who will tell it, rather than a network creating a show and casting a host for it. These are their passions.”
Those passions are meant to stir up millennials who have, through reams of research, professed concern and commitment for myriad social issues that are covered on many Viceland shows (a tie the network is banking on advertisers buying into). The format, which works to great success on HBO’s Emmy-winning Vice documentary show, harkens back to TV stalwarts such as 60 Minutes.
“It’s a more natural form of storytelling and it was always the hallmark of 60 Minutes, which got rid of the traditional imperious narrator and replaced it with highly idiosyncratic individuals, such as Mike Wallace, Morley Safer and Ed Bradley,” said Jon Klein, CEO and cofounder of digital network builder Tapp Media and former president of CNN/U.S., who also oversaw 60 Minutes for a time when he was at CBS. “In a sense, Vice continues the 60 Minutes tradition. Those are authentic voices and they found a way to capture that. That’s the lingua franca of journalism today.”
Whether or not that formula helps to bring in viewers and advertisers remains anybody’s guess — and it’s a difficult equation.
“It’s very early to be looking at any performance of a channel,” Klein said. “And I don’t know any successful launch of any channel. Traditional cable is a very tough road to hoe. But Vice has created a mystique around the brand and, what’s more, you can watch Viceland in any number of ways even if you don’t get cable.”
While Smith and Co. do their level best to maintain their media maverick cred, they’ve balanced it with expanded ties to other major outlets. A new pact will allow Vice to develop short-form shows for ESPN TV and digital properties, with a trade of some 30 for 30 segments airing on Viceland. Every bit of exposure will help the network.
Still, it’s another safe bet that the on-air and off -air attitude of Viceland won’t fall under the rubric of traditional television. When asked to recommend the right first Viceland show for this writer’s 21-year-old daughter, Slattery said, “Weediquette — most 21-yearolds like smoking weed, right?” While that may not be a Leslie Moonves-type answer, that seems to be the point — in an already disrupted TV world, maybe something more untraditional is needed to bring millennials in.
That appeared to be Smith’s attitude at the NewFront. When asked the same question, he suggested Gaycation or “some of our environmental stuff — we’ve got to change the world.”
If that’s really Smith’s goal — yet another lofty one — Viceland is his latest tool, and regardless of safe bets or long odds, it’s probably wise not to doubt his commitment to the game, regardless of when or how it may end.
“I believe in the future,” he said, as he was swept off into the NewFront crowd. “I don’t ever wanna be fully satisfied.”
Viceland: The Chief Assets
Key personnel: Shane Smith, CEO; Spike Jonze and Eddy Moretti, co-presidents
Premier advertisers: PLC, Bank of America Corp., Diageo, Shinola, Bushmills, Mailchimp, Samsung, T-Mobile USA, Toyota and Unilever
Balls Deep: Thomas Morton hits the road — to a tent revival in Arkansas, to Michigan to spend Ramadan with a Muslim family, to Alaska to live off the land — to delve into humanity and what it all means.
Gaycation: Ellen Page and her BFF Ian Daniel find out how the world deals with LGBTQ issues; stops include Japan, Brazil, Jamaica and, infamously, Iowa, where they had a little chat with Ted Cruz.
Huang’s World: Eddie Huang eats tuna sperm in Italy, checks out panda porn in China and drinks poop-infused coffee in Shanghai in this travel, food, search-for-self series.
Noisey: Zach Goldbaum looks at the culture and chief figures in some of the world’s most fascinating music scenes. At the same time, he delves into anything from violence to drugs and gangs to Wayne Newton.
States of Undress: Hailey Gates explores global fashion and issues that go way beyond the runway, from China’s clothing manufacturing to cultures that insist on women wearing burkas.
Vice World of Sports: Selema Masekela covers boxing in Bukom (in Ghana), soccer in a Ugandan prison and baseball in Cuba.
Weediquette: Krishna Andavolu explores the new “pot paradigm,” looking at the marijuana business and culture from the Congo to Amsterdam, and California to Colorado.
July premieres on Viceland:
Black Market: Michael K. Williams looks at underground economies and folks finding ways to survive in the U.S. and around the world, from carjackers in N.J. to poachers in South Africa.
Cyberwar: Ben Makuch introduces us to hackers, dissidents, government officials and others involved in the confusing and frightening world of cyberwarfare.
Dead Set on Life: Canadian chef Matty Matheson serves up everything from a $6 gas station sub to the culinary wonders of Winnipeg’s Filipino community — and lots in between.
Party Legends: Lance Bangs brings us — through art and animation — to some parties we all wish we could have attended, courtesy of Fred Armisen, Margaret Cho, Dennis Rodman, Bobcat Goldthwait and many more.
Vice Does America: Abdullah Saeed, Wilbert L. Cooper and Martina De Alba take us up close and personal to the voting public during this most insanely weird election.
The Shane Smith Empire: Vice Media at a Glance
Key personnel: Shane Smith, CEO; Eddy Morretti, chief creative officer; Spike Jonze, creative director
Valuation: $4.2 billion-$4.5 billion
Key Investors: 21st Century Fox, Disney, Technology Crossover Ventures
Vice (HBO series): Emmy-winning newsmagazine exec produced by Bill Maher
Vice Books: Featuring collections of works and photos tied into the magazine
Vice Films: Outlet for feature-length documentary releases
The Vice Guide to Everything: MTV series featuring Vice Films releases and other documentary-based episodes.
Vice magazine: Founded in 1994, focuses on art, culture, news
Vice Music: Company has released product from a variety of artists, including Snoop Dogg
VBS.tv: Company’s web-only video channel; launched in deal with MTV Networks and Logo Group.
Verticals: Six new ones launched, bringing total to 17
Worldwide channels: Plans to launch 20 more worldwide
SOURCE: Vice Media