So, programming is not the way it used to be. Please, keep your gasps held. I understand this may come as sort of a shock. The internet has changed the way we consume programs, the way they are created, measured, valued – and certainly monetization is a sticking point. I understand this is already abundantly clear, but I emphasize the transition experienced over the past decade – because, it would seem, some remain oblivious. We have media staples reporting new lows over the last week – Yahoo!, Viacom, Time Warner, 21st Century Fox, Disney, CBS, Comcast – and nobody can pinpoint the issue.
A tough market, 2015 misfires on the big screen, bad venture investments, poor or mismanaged leadership – these have each been thrown around as possible causes, and yet, no one will say outright: on a long term scale, these companies (who, by the way, own, like, everything in Hollywood) have no idea what they are doing tomorrow, let alone a year from now. So when something goes right, great. And when it goes wrong, panic. I have thrown it out there that strategy is missing in Hollywood, and for that, the industry suffers.
A calendar is not a plan, and a to-do list is not a strategy. And, this is actually not a discussion of market values or media outlets or the failure to grasp onto an ounce of foresight – no, that will come in the proceeding days, once the dust has settled and we can soak in the aftermath. I want to make my feelings clear on this stumble written across industry books because I want to highlight a possible candle in the dark. There is a new network coming to airwaves 29 February via A&E, and it goes by the name VICELAND. You may have heard of it, maybe VICE Media, or the HBO show VICE, a documentary series aimed at young viewers. VICE Media is a collection of written word and visual media components that has grabbed the attention of the millennial audience – the web page totals 58.9 million total visitors, 56.4 percent of which are part of the coveted millennial group.
VICELAND is the network that will bring the internet empire to the small screen, hoping to attract those same tikes to a television as well. Sounding like crusaders, VICE Media founder and CEO Shane Smith and his compatriot, co-president of the network Spike Jonze, have announced themselves with plans to “fuck shit up” and come up with a “new algorithm” for TV. Bold claims indeed. The internet is one thing, but television is part of an aging beast, it requires more than purpose to succeed.
Possibly, the most interesting aspect of VICE Media then, is that it is not David against Goliath. VICE is a Goliath in its own right, currently valued at $4.2 billion. And it was not built from protest or alternative means, but on the backs of those same peers currently finding it difficult to navigate the treacherous waters. VICE Media has received large backing in the past from both 21st Century Fox and Disney. So you could say, VICELAND does not so much represent change or growth, but what amounts to treason.
So why is this a good thing? Because that aging beast I mentioned is tired and lost, and does not recognize the world it inhabits. We are seeing it in every aspect of media. Film, television, music – everybody is clamoring to figure out what went wrong, rather than accepting what has changed is completely alright. Even those with the most bold outlook still hold onto old ways of thinking, antiquated equations for how things are done. Modern television is currently being excitedly heralded as the pioneer film can no longer be (until profitability catches up), and yet those who own the airwaves continue to shove square pegs in round holes – just trust me, it doesn’t work.
VICELAND, based on the big talk and the bigger picture strategy laid out by Smith, looks to step into the television game on its own terms. Nielson ratings are out (for the first six months), as are the corresponding ratings grabs like Shonda Rhimes theme nights, “hit it and quit it” guest appearances, or live musical specials that remind John Travolta why he signed up for Pulp Fiction. Instead, new and established original programming that tell the viewer what to be interested in, because while the customer may always be right, they are also just as consistently clueless.
Obviously, this instigation proclamation is not being met with approval across the board. “You think I could hoodwink Bob Iger, Jeff Bewkes and Rupert Murdoch?” With quotes like this, who needs friends? Not Shane Smith – though, honestly, just keep raking in the money dude, and those guys wouldn’t blink an eye if you fucked a dude sideways on their grandmothers’ grave. What? It’s a joke. Of course they would blink. It’s like physically impossible not to.
Other than those with vested interests, there are prognosticators in all corners spelling out a dreadful fate for VICELAND, comparing it to Current TV – now that’s low, guys. These worry mongers fear television will be where VICE Media falters, believing in its own hype enough to assume their young viewers will be loyal enough to use a real TV set. Except, VICE is not exactly looking to become the #1 anything on television. According to Smith, TV is just another mark on the check list meant to broaden his kingdom and teach a few lessons in how to correctly target an audience, create groundbreaking content and simultaneously earn a salary.
VICELAND has swaggering potential to produce invigorating programming that does what entertainment does so well – make people talk. At the end of the day, when the politicians have said their peace and the stock market has rung its bell, this is a media culture. We are defined and incited by our ideas. This should not be confused with pop or celebrity culture, that sweet little delicacy we overindulge in to the point of gluttony. We are a media culture, one that lives and breathes based on the conversations, the discussions, the sparring of words and opinions put forth by our visual media. And it is high time the corporations that control our fourth estate recognize their influence, that the films, programs, music, imagery produced are no longer just products, but dialogues.
VICE Media is a mega conglomerate just like all the others. It generates revenue, accepts corporate backing and succeeds based on supply and demand. But there is a difference. VICE has the opportunity to propose a real-time guide to surviving in the internet age. A strategy, however unorthodox, is what gives Shane Smith confidence in his decisions. In-house productions, low operating costs, repurposed and repackaged programs between online and TV (based on what works and what does not). Market consolidation, key sponsor deals to decrease ad time, dedicated employees (the kind not currently being asked to sacrifice their livelihood for the sake of the almighty company) – it is a start, and certainly far more than any of the current media moguls have done to adjust – you know, without going bankrupt.
VICELAND can and should work. And more than whether it succeeds or breaks even, takes off or is slow out the gate – it represents what can be. Not just ideas being floated around about what could happen, but an actual attempt to prove how television and its counterparts can rejoin the race. Once you realize that media has a pulse and a heart and a mind, it is nearly impossible to assume it can be controlled using old logic, logic built by those who only considered Citizen Kane a box office misfire, or amounted Roots to simple demographics, or believe that reality (actual events, not Survivor) shown through a creative lens, cannot be profitable or popular. Shane Smith, Spike Jonze and their entire crew of misfits have a simple prerogative to show us how things can be. I say, we let them.