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Duncan Greive is the editor and founder of New Zealand pop culture-obsessed website The Spinoff and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Duncan Grieve: Will Viceland fill Sky's missing youth demographic?

Viceland's new channel launches in New Zealand today. Should you watch it? Here's your answer.
A scene from Viceland's upcoming show Black Market. Photo / Supplied
A scene from Viceland's upcoming show Black Market. Photo / Supplied

Yeseterday, Sky launched a new channel with a lot riding on it. Viceland, which arrived at 13 (edgy number!) on your black box, represents part of the pay TV giant's attempt to confront what all legacy media companies are consumed with at the moment: the youth's overwhelming indifference to both what they make and how they deliver it.

This matters not so much for commercial reasons in the immediate term - the company declared a healthy profit of $87m in February of this year - but because, in quite a short period of time Sky has gone from being a sharemarket behemoth with an entrenched position and major growth prospects to battling perception that it is a sunset business tottering to its grave.

Rapper Kendrick Lamar talks to host Zach Goldbaum on Viceland's "Noisey," which spotlights music scenes in different cities across the U.S.
Rapper Kendrick Lamar talks to host Zach Goldbaum on Viceland's "Noisey," which spotlights music scenes in different cities across the U.S.

This is hardly unique to the company - legacy businesses all over the world are fighting off digital insurgents and dealing with generational behavioural change. What's interesting is the pace at which this is happening to Sky.

Most legacy companies are venerable and ancient, having built up their cumbersome infrastructure and attachment to particular ways of behaving over decades and thus blinding themselves to some of the dangers lurking in the current business environment. But Sky itself is a millennial, just 29 years old, a cruel irony as that is precisely the kind of consumer demographic which would now laugh Sky and its weighty bills (mine is $140 a month, which makes me feel sick just typing it) out of the room.

So you would expect this relatively young business to know how to adapt to a changing environment. To this point, its efforts have been somewhat desultory. Its streaming service Neon has incredible content, but at $20 a month is more expensive than its competition. It was late and slow to introduce Fanpass, online delivery mechanisms for some of its sports product. And SkyGo, its digital platform seems to crash so frequently under the kind of heavy load that major live sporting events induce that I've wondered whether it wasn't a deliberate ploy to ensure that television remains the delivery mechanism of choice when you really need to see it live.

Tellingly, these are all platform-centric innovations. They're haltingly promoted because they risk cannibalising their own audience and thus accelerating the costly customer churn which surpassed 15% recently, the highest number in at least a decade, according to the Herald's Matt Nippert.

A scene from Viceland's upcoming series, Gaycation.
A scene from Viceland's upcoming series, Gaycation.

Viceland, though, is an attempt to stop the bleeding not with delivery but with content. It's the TV offshoot of Vice, a media brand which began life as sometimes funny, often obnoxious free magazine, then became an online monster thanks largely to the guerilla-style documentary videos, which will make up much of the channel's content. These are often shot in forbidden areas like warzones or North Korea, and appeal to young people who feel alienated from - or simply never see - traditional media outlets.

Investors have taken note, and a joint venture featuring Disney has pumped US$400m into the company in recent years, valuing it at over US$2 billion. They're asking it to do the same thing Sky is here - get those online kids turning on their TVs again, subscribing to Sky. Or at least stopping their parents from cutting the cord.

You'll notice I've got this far without mentioning the content. I haven't watched it. While Vice's New Zealand operation is sharply-staffed and run, its US leaders seem like jerks and overly-confident about their own awesomeness. In a searing scene from the 2011 documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times, the Times' late media reporter David Carr interrogated Vice's founder and CEO Shane Smith, who had dismissed his paper, bizarrely, as writing about surfing while he chased down purported cannibals in Liberia.

Krishna Andavolu star in Viceland's television series, Weediquette.
Krishna Andavolu star in Viceland's television series, Weediquette.

Carr stopped him dead in his tracks. "Before you went there," he spat, "we were reporting on genocide after genocide. And just because you went there and put on a safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn't give you the right to insult what we do."

At that point the Times' digital strategy was flailing and Vice was in the ascendant. Today Vice is starting to look stale and the Times is more vital than ever. It's a lesson that startups (like The Spinoff, the one I run, or Newsroom, the one accidentally unveiled this week by Jennings Murphy) would do well to heed: that giants might move slowly, but they have heavy feet. And that Sky, for all its flaws, remains a big and profitable force, with revenues from this small island nation which aren't a long way off what Vice makes from the entire world. So despite Sky's share price having cratered over the past couple of years, its still has plenty of time to get it right.

Disclosure: Duncan Greive is founder and CEO of The Spinoff, a media company which could be perceived as being in competition with Vice in New Zealand, and has a commercial relationship with Spark, a direct competitor of Vodafone, with which Sky is currently attempting to merge.

- NZ Herald

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Duncan Greive is the editor and founder of New Zealand pop culture-obsessed website The Spinoff and columnist for the NZ Herald.

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