From cannabis cuisine to underground music scenes, Action Bronson to Gloria Steinem, and a travel show covering international LGBTQ communities, Viceland’s 24-hour cable network is a kaleidoscopic lens to make sense of our world. To celebrate their 2017 Grand Clios for Out of Home and Brand Identity, we’re going to explore the global media brand’s style and content to find out what exactly makes their approach to news, journalism, and storytelling so uniquely “Viceland.”
Almost two years ago, in November of 2015, Vice Media finalized its deal to take over A+E Networks' H2 channel. The company, which was founded in Montreal in 1994 by Shane Smith, Gavin McInnes and Suroosh Alvi as a free punk magazine called Voice of Montreal, rebranded the channel as Viceland. “Keen on bringing millennials back to TV,” as Vice co-founder and CEO Shane Smith put it — a demographic that doesn’t own cable subscriptions and is more loyal to shows than networks — the move was a strategic fit for the company’s diversified asset portfolio, but a logical one too in streamlining its content distribution. Smith called it "the next step in the evolution of our brand.”
The network debuted on February 29, 2016 in 71 millions homes across the U.S., featuring hundreds of hours of original programming developed in-house by Vice. Led by the award-winning director Spike Jonze and Vice’s chief creative officer Eddy Moretti, Viceland's aesthetic was driven by a sense of experimentation and empathy, Jonze said in an interview with VICE before its launch. "It's really about making sure everything on the channel exists for a reason. We didn't do any market research. We didn't do any focus groups. We just made things that we are interested in, that we think are funny, and that we care about. We also thought of people with a strong point of view who we admired and wanted to support,” Jonze said.
Two million followers on Facebook, more than half a million on Instagram, about 180,000 on Twitter, the network celebrated its first anniversary last February, and with it, promoted Derek Freda and Guy Slattery to co-presidents. Jonze and Moretti resumed roles at Vice Media as co-chief creative officers.
If the 24-hour news cycle is a Darwinian test for millenials, then VIceland’s 49 original series redefined the meaning of survival of the fittest. Available online and in countries across the world, including Canada, Australia and the UK, the shows take a hands-on approach to important current events and issues with real stories in real time. There’s Balls Deep, which features Thomas Morton (once upon a time a Vice intern) hanging out with different groups of people; Bong Appétit, hosting dinner parties with a banquet of marijuana; Desus & Mero, is the flagship late night talk show that discusses everything from Trump to Ty Dollar $ign; Gaycation is Ellen Page’s travel diary across different LGBTQ communities in the world; Noisey, a music docuseries, and Vice Labs, for everything else experimental.
On November 15, Viceland will debut two new shows: Most Expensivist, with rapper 2 Chainz uncovering the most extravagant ways the 1% can spend their money (including a donut covered in gold), and The Trixie & Katya Show with two drag icons “examining life’s most important issues.” The second season of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, a series that takes a deep-dive into the world of extraordinary drugs, returns in late November as well.
Viceland’s Marketing VP, Meghan Kirsch, explained the brand's style owes itself to a particular attitude and vibe. “We are a home for interesting, curious people and their ideas,” Kirsch said. “Even the process by which we operate, our programming, content, talent — it's all about nurturing people’s passions and giving them the freedom to make and tell stories in their unique way.”
The series are a mix of high and low-brow content, which reinforces Kirsch’s belief that the selection has more to do with a feeling than some overriding corporate directive.
“We try to reflect society in an authentic way,” Kirsch said. This April, the network coined the first “Weed Week” (April 17-April 20) ahead of the release of its cannabis-themed shows Weediquette and Bong Appétit. As part of the series’ launch, the network devised a marketing campaign where store fronts in New York and Los Angeles were filled with fake weed-related objects and installed a weed-scented ATM in the Lower East Side.
Beyond the network’s shows and marketing efforts, Viceland’s style extends itself to its production. The series are beautifully shot, with an almost cinematic feel. Alex Dorman, a freelance associate producer who’s worked on Noisey, Hate Thy Neighbour and Vice Labs, said “Viceland is what ‘reality TV’ should be. It’s content that’s actually realistic and authentic.” Show producers don’t shy away from subjects, but make sure to frame them in fair and balanced ways. “We cover stuff that’s weird, fun, absurd, but that’s the world that we live in,” Dorman added.
Randy Stulberg, who's been the showrunner for Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia since its launch two years ago, said that some of the show’s distinguishing features is “the amazing access they get to clandestine chemists and the unsung heroes of science,” as well as “its humor and authenticity.” “From a scientific or anthropological perspective,” Stulberg added, “there’s never been a show like this before.” An episode that epitomizes the show is ‘The Story of the South African Quaalude’, where Hamilton travels to South Africa in search of the last quaaludes on earth.
This raw and real M.O. is precisely what makes the network so inviting to viewers. Since its debut, Viceland has earned the trust of a young demographic. Vice's 2016 media kit said the company collectively reaches twice as many 18-34 year olds compared to other media channels. Kirsch said they have a lot of young, passionate people in front and behind of the camera, which adds to the network’s appeal.
The Vice brand is carried through the office's design. Headquartered in Williamsburg, the 75,000-square foot open-floor plan features more than 125 video editing suites, long tables, plush couches, a roof garden overlooking Manhattan skyline and kitchen walls lined with fruit and colourful snacks. The space epitomizes the company's commitment for collaboration and creativity. “Everyone’s mobile, they can be passionate and creative and bounce ideas off each other,” Kirsch said.
Guy Slattery once described Vice’s target demographic in AdWeek as "young, affluent, and well-educated, and dodging ads both online and on TV.” Still, the company’s no-holds-barred attitude has appealed to a slew of native content collaborators and investors along the way looking to reinvigorate their company image — including HBO, Intel, Walt Disney Co. and 21st Century Fo Inc. In June, Vice Media received another $450 million in funding from private equity firm TPG, bringing it to its current value at $5.7 billion according to Bloomberg. In 2014, Smith told AdWeek that their success lies in the ability to give brands what they want, "which is brand lift, while also getting the content that we want out there, rather than the content that [brands] want or that everybody thinks that they want.”
Shortly after the network launched in 2016, the network was criticized for its low ratings performance compared to H2. In the first quarter of 2017, Nielsen reported that the station received 60,000 viewers on average in primetime with viewers ages 18-49. At a NewFronts presentation, Viceland prided itself about high audience retention rate and ability to successfully bring native advertising to TV, thus reducing ad load.
"Vice’s appeal is all about how it talks to its audience," Paul Verna, principal video analyst at eMarketer, told Financial Times following the TPG investment in June. “A lot of companies that have tried to talk to millennials do it in a very clumsy or pandering way,” Verna said. “But with Vice it feels very genuine and comes from the ground up whereas other companies approach millennials from the top down.”