Vice, the Canadian counter culture magazine turned Williamsburg-based global media company whose ever-expanding no-longer-under-the-radar brand now encompasses original web video, books, films, an in-house branding agency that creates targeted content for companies like Dell and Nike and partnerships with media outlets including CNN, the Guardian and the Huffington Post, still has a way of raising eyebrows. It did so recently with the news of its latest undertaking—an eponymous new show on HBO that co-founder Shane Smith is calling "a news magazine for the next generation."
"Gen Y has the largest amount of disposable income, so we should be making media for them, and yet we don’t and especially we don’t for news," says Smith, who serves as CEO and spokesperson for Vice Media as well as a scruffily winning on-air camera presence known for reporting from hot spots around the world.
"There’s a lot of quote unquote givens in the news industry, like young people don’t give a shit about anything that happens outside of America, young people don’t give a shit about politics, and I think all those givens are complete hogwash," he says. "Young people are disenfranchised by traditional media, but they’re voracious consumers of media and content and news. We believe there’s a huge opportunity and a huge audience and we think we’re gonna turn some heads because we’ve got some jaw-dropping stories told in a different way and a lot of people are gonna tune in."
After turning down a "really hard to refuse gig" at a major network on the advice of Vice agent Ari Emanuel, Smith and his team went courting HBO instead. "We think that HBO is the best network because they allow the most freedom," Smith says. "We can swear and show severed heads, so that’s all good stuff."
To win over the cable network, the Vice team assembled a "best of" reel that included stories on North Korean labor camps, Liberia and the gun markets of Pakistan and later produced a pilot that included stories about Afghan suicide bombers and underground heroin clinics.
"A news magazine show is not something we were looking for," says Michael Lombardo, president of programming at HBO. "But this was the kind of storytelling that felt so distinctive and fresh that it was doing everything we say we’re about in the scripted space. They don’t go at the news dead-on. That’s the beauty of Vice, that they come at things sideways and they absolutely entertain you while they’re reaching your heart on an issue, and that’s hard to do and very unusual."
Lombardo introduced Smith and company to Bill Maher, who is acting as an executive producer on the new show along with Vice chief creative officer Eddy Moretti (CNN’s Fareed Zakaria is also consulting). Lombardo says HBO is considering airing Vice on those Friday nights when Maher is on hiatus. "There is something about the sensibility of the Vice show that made me feel the Bill Maher audience would like it," Lombardo says.
So how did a once scrappy operation like Vice amass a body of irreverent pop culture content and online news that allowed them to develop a show at this level?
"We all started years ago with no experience, so we just sort of learned how to work together as a team and we just got better at it by not resting on our laurels and being harshly critical of ourselves," says Smith, who points out that the majority of their staffers have never worked anywhere else.
"Basically we started as a magazine so our overall structure is based on that magazine structure of having core staff, then you have freelance contributors, fixers, photographers, writers," he says. "When we switched over to video we converted our magazine offices into video production offices with edit suites and cameras and we used the same model. We have some full time producers or editors but a lot of the time, stringers you don’t need to have them full time, they just work per story which keeps it more cost effective. But then when you want to expand we have this whole Triple-A league of people, so if you want someone to become full time we know who the best shooters and producers are because we’ve been working with them as freelancers for the past few years."
In the early days, because of budget constraints, if producers allocated a week to report a story, they went with what they got, even if they didn’t quite come back with the whole story. "We realized that the networks did stuff better than us because if they didn’t have the story they’d go back and film again," he says. "So we learned to stay a little bit longer, spend more time on the story in post, a little more time in research and pre-production, more time immersing ourselves in the culture."
As the now well-told story goes, Vice was founded in 1996 by three friends in Montreal and now has offices in 34 countries, a staff of nearly 1000 and some 3500 stringers.
Having built a global network means that Smith now has an embarrassment of pitches coming in from around the planet.
"I just went through 120 pages of story ideas from all our offices," Smith says. "It’s just insane how much content we have. I can’t be prouder of the organization we’ve built because back in the day we’d have 100 pitches and we’d pick 10. Now we have 120 pages and I wanted to make them all. Some stories can go across multi-platforms so it can hit the mag, it can be online, it can be on TV, on our mobile platform. If it’s got a really good hook we’ll know in the edit and we’ll plug it across every platform."
Smith calls HBO "the gold standard," and says he is excited that their new show, planned for late 2012/early 2013, will allow "this great deluge of incredible Vice content to hit the world." But given that Vice news content is available online and for free across so many platforms, what is the subscription-only HBO show going to look like?
Smith, who will host, said it would be an hour-long format with three or four stories that would take viewers to Vice bureaux around the world for stories on "Somali pirates, abandoned megacities, the Kingdom of Mustang or whatever we’ve got going. It will be some straight up news pieces, a lot of what I call the absurdity of the modern condition pieces, and there will be for sure what Vice does well, sort of immersion in culture pieces. It’s basically what’s a good story, what’s a jaw-dropping story, what’s a no-that-can’t-be-fucking-real story, that’s what we’re gonna do."
HBO’s Lombardo says he hasn’t decided whether the show should run for 30 minutes or an hour. "Shane and his team feel strongly that this is an hour, and I’m open to that, but if we’re going to do an hour I want to make sure it’s well paced," Lombardo says. "I think there is a slight translation of tone from what I’ll call the digital world to the television landscape. I think on the web your attention is limited, it’s a harder, more rock and roll sell to bring you in. But a person who has made a decision to watch a TV program, you don’t need to grab them by the lapels. It’s my hope that we open our arms wide enough so nobody feels that this show is too cool for school. That would be short-changing what this show is and a disservice to our subscribers."
It seems that the HBO show is just one more step in Smith’s not so secret plan to turn Vice into a digital hybrid of CNN, ESPN and MTV.
"We’re lucky we can stay in Williamsburg and have our own company and have our own fun and do our own thing," he says. "Somebody at some point will come out of the mud, either Facebook or Google are gonna come and say we want all these channels, we want all these verticals with all these young people watching and all these brands to support them. Oh, Vice already has all of that. For the longest time we said the big boys will determine the platform, but you gotta fill the pipe with something. Now everybody is sort of coming to this late in the game and we’re saying look, we’ve been doing this for 6 or 7 years, we have the infrastructure and now we just wanna put everybody in our rear view mirrors because we wanna be shooting the best quality and quantity of video content online in every country that we’re in."
But Smith insists that his plans for global domination—and the fact that the company received a sizable investment ("eight figures," according to reports) from a group of investors, including the most corporate of ad holding companies, WPP—haven’t changed the heart of the brand.
"When we were just in Montreal and we started expanding to the rest of Canada, the Montrealers said we were sell outs and then when we came to America, oh fuck that was a cardinal sin, and then when we expanded around the world and we did video, oh that was terrible but you know it’s the Bob Dylan goes electric syndrome," he says. "Everyone says it’s terrible and then a few years later everyone’s like, that was smart."
"Everyone’s been predicting our doom for the past 17 ½ years," Smith continues. "We were a peripheral brand, and now we’re a challenger brand. But we have never changed our ethos. We just try to make shit that doesn’t suck."