Not to make too big a commotion over it, but when the cable channel H2 (History 2) disappears on Monday, Feb. 29 and is replaced by “Viceland,” it will be notable because: Very few startup channels are immediately available to 71 million viewers; and fewer still have the financial backing of the Disney empire (which co-owns the A&E network which operated H2), not to mention a $70 million buy-in from rival 21st Century Fox and a quarter billion more from a Silicon Valley investment group. Moreover, you almost never hear a basic cable channel vowing to run fewer commercials than their competitors.
There is no shame in admitting you rarely if ever watch H2, which has been consigned to play the role of a weak sister, spillover repository for The History Channel. Unless quasi-scientists hunting proof of visits from godlike space travelers is your thing, H2 has pretty much been surf-over land.
But what the big media corporations (Hearst’s in with Disney on the A&E deal) and tech investors see in “Viceland” is a unique — and as far as they’re concerned, proven — programming concept with a far better chance of pulling in young male viewers, one of television’s most elusive viewing audiences.
“Viceland” is the latest expansion from the crew that has already ingratiated itself and its brash, in-your-face style with HBO. Vice Media, the brainchild of a world class self-promoter named Shane Smith, has made impressive inroads on the media/journalism consciousness with its vivid weekly reports from the front lines of the various fights in the Middle East as well as, “other things that we’re interested in,” to quote Smith.
The distinctive quality of Vice’s HBO battlefront documentaries is their willingness to routinely violate traditional network taboos about showing blood and gore (i.e. “reality” to Smith). What was the last time you got a closeup of a suicide bomber’s shredded corpse? Never, if your diet is restricted to CBS or CNN and the other majors.
Whether anyone needs to see a bomber’s decapitated head retrieved from a nearby rooftop is an open question. But the Vice model, which has already proven compelling to millennials via HBO and Vice’s shrewd command of every imaginable social media platform, argues that a new generation of news consumers is far less resistant to the kind of content and graphic imagery that networks, still rooted in a broadcast ethos, have traditionally avoided.
That said, Smith, who has teamed with the exceptionally imaginative filmmaker Spike Jonze (“Adaptation,” “Being John Malkovich,” “Her”) to program Viceland, has actually been restrained in his appetite for the usual sleazy-cheesy NSFW web stuff like gratuitous nudity that other fringy programmers find irresistible. Vice may appall old school journalists (even as they envy the budget Vice throws at documentaries, like a recent 15-minute piece on human genetic engineering that took the young reporter to four different continents), but there’s no disputing its focus on serious subject matter.
“Viceland,” though, may be a different matter. The current plan has Vice expanding to nightly news/documentary content for HBO, leaving Jonze and his team to create shows on the former H2 dial position nearer and maybe dearer to millennial lifestyle passions.
A sampling of programs currently poised for debut with “Viceland”:
• “Balls Deep,” wherein a basically nerdy white guy immerses himself in various bizarre subcultures and goes along with whatever the norm there might be. (Did I mention Jonze co-created “Jackass”?)
• “Weediquette,” an expansion of a Vice web series on the myriad facets of the drug culture, recreational and scientific. Including, let it be noted, skepticism that medicinal marijuana is universally medicinal.
• “[Bleep], That’s Delicious,” a beefy, bearded white rapper roams the U.S. chowing down on local grub. Not sure who needs yet another foodie show, but the rapper angle is different.
There’s more. But you get the idea. Bottom line on the programming: Nothing much here for the “Downton Abbey” crowd, but plenty for their grandsons.
Because of their existing “multi-platform” reach which gives them a unique cashflow advantage over the usual startup, Smith and Jonze have also been hyping their commitment to “fewer” commercials on “Viceland” than network and basic cable competitors. There’s every reason to be skeptical of that. But over the years he’s been building Vice Smith has regularly mocked traditional TV (and all broadcasting) for their buzz-killing commercial overload, a prime reason why so many consumers, the young in particular, rarely watch live programming.
The crushing commercial load, currently hovering around 20 minutes an hour on the networks (and radio), has as much to do with debts from repeated leveraged buyouts as it does with garden variety greed. But in effect it hardly matters. Commercials are not a value proposition for young viewers and it’s easy to avoid them.
There’s a naked and shameless level of self-slathering hype in the general Vice concept. (Here by the way is local legend David Carr interviewing Smith and a few other Viceoids at their Brooklyn headquarters a few years ago. It’s classic Carr, and classic Carr dress code, from the film “Page One.”) But Smith has already proven himself a smart operator with what until now at least has been a shrewd ear and nose for the interests and tolerance levels of a new generation of information consumers.