Vice Media's gamble for traditional TV

By Russell Brown

Shane Smith,  founder  of Vice Media, is aiming to bring millennials back to television. Picture / Bloomberg
Shane Smith, founder of Vice Media, is aiming to bring millennials back to television. Picture / Bloomberg

In its 25-year history, Vice Media has treasured a reputation for operating at the edge, embracing the digital shift and paying little heed to tradition. So it might come as a surprise to find out that its big new bet is a linear TV channel.

Vice has even hired a Discovery Channel veteran, Jay Rosenstock, to push its Viceland channel into dozens of international markets. Rosenstock acknowledges that partnering with companies like Sky in New Zealand and BSkyB in the UK might seem at odds with the company's style.

"We were coming at it from a different perspective. We've got a strong digital business today, we've got a built-in audience. We're producing the content for the channel all ourselves, so we can use it on a multi-platform basis," he says.

"As we look around the world, building the Vice brand even deeper and having television as part of that offering is very important. Television is still very meaningful in a lot of parts of the world - both from a viewing perspective and an advertising perspective.

We're not becoming a TV company, but TV will be part of our multi-platform strategy."

It's a long-term strategy being enacted very quickly. Rosenstock has been with Vice for a year-and-half, but he was only made president of Viceland International last month. He was in New Zealand last week off the end of a visit to Australia, where Viceland has gone with SBS - its first free-to-air partner.

If advertising income will be crucial in Australia, where there is no subscription revenue to underwrite things, it's clearly part of the proposition here too. The pitch to both distribution partners and advertisers is clear enough: Viceland can reach 18-34-year-old audiences that others cannot.

"Viceland reaches young, affluent, well-educated men," says Rosenstock. "A very tough demographic to reach."

He says Sky, which will be doing the selling, is receiving "very robust interest" in what the channel offers. He may be hoping that advertisers don't dwell on Viceland's indifferent BSkyB launch. On some nights in September, launch month, Viceland rated a prime-time zero with its target audience. Viceland launched to lacklustre audiences in the US last year too, but has since pulled closer to where it needs to be.

"Its really too early," responds Rosenstock. "We launched the channel in the UK a month ago, we've been growing it significantly, we're very proud of the content and the localisation we're doing. We're producing a lot of UK hours. We're in the UK for the long-term and we're happy with where it is."

Even the doubters agree that Viceland's content is strong. The vibe from its digital portfolio carries over into Viceland programmes like the marijuana magazine show Weediquette (Vice has made a virtue of plainspoken content about drugs, across its various brands) and F**k That's Delicious, fronted by bad-boy bon vivant rapper Action Bronson. Cyberwar, Black Market and Big Night Out are all essentially the kind of zesty "immersive journalism" the company has pioneered online with Vice News documentaries.

Rosenstock says there will be local production, although how much budget makes it here from Australia remains to be seen.

"If you look at our initial slate - factual entertainment, news - we'll be broadening that out, we're likely to do some scripted content in the coming year. We're testing some daily comedic-type shows in America right now."

Vice already has a number of brands operating in New Zealand, including the music website Noisey.

These will run separately from Viceland. But the most millennial part of the business - an in-house creative agency - is very much part of Viceland's revenue model.

Will Viceland, as Vice's founder Shane Smith promised this year, "bring millennials back to television"?

That remains to be seen. But it does offer a kind of programming that Sky has not been able to offer viewers till now. And, possibly, the kind of viewers Sky wants and hasn't had a clear way to get.

Viceland launches on Sky on December 1.

- NZ Herald

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