New channel Viceland woos cord-cutting millennials

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

Viceland, the new cable network, is a very chill place. Ellen Page saw that personally when she got a job there almost by accident.

“Spike’s a really good friend of mine, and I was literally crashing at his place in New York right before starting a movie,” the 29-year-old star of Juno and Inception said, referring to Spike Jonze, director of such millennial touchstones as Where the Wild Things Are and Her.

“And he said, ‘Oh, we’re looking to launch a TV network, so if you have any TV ideas let me know,’ ” she added.

Within a couple of days she texted a pitch to Jonze, who’s in charge of programming for the network. Meetings were taken. And a few days after that, Page, who came out as gay in 2014, was on board to co-host a new series.

Gaycation, a reality travelogue about LGBT people all over the world, is one of the inaugural offerings from Viceland, the network that digital journalism pioneer Vice and cable giant A&E launched at the end of February.

“We just went for it,” Page said of Gaycation.

Really fun sandbox

That’s how they roll at Viceland, which hopes to spread the vaunted Vice brand — edgy, irreverent, millennial-skewing — across an entire cable network, beamed at launch to 70 million U.S. cable subscribers (it is broadcast on the channel formerly occupied by H2, a spinoff of the History channel).

Anyone born after 1980 is probably already well aware of Vice, whose co-founder Shane Smith is a new-media mogul with an estimated net worth well in excess of $1 billion. From its humble origins as a Montreal alternative magazine started in 1994, the company’s websites and phone apps, such as the music app Noisey, have become leading purveyors of news and information aimed at young adults (headquarters is now New York).

Vice covers topics like climate change and indie rock as aggressively as more traditional news outlets report on national politics and corporate moves. And it does so without the detachment often found in mainstream journalism. The Vice voice is direct, intimate, relatable.

TV viewers have already gotten a taste of Vice via a half-hour newsmagazine on HBO. There was also a partnership (since defunct) with There was an earlier stab at an online network funded by MTV and also overseen by Jonze.

But the new network is the most ambitious undertaking yet. The way Jonze describes it, Viceland is more like a really fun sandbox than a conventional cable network launch.

“I’m trying to make a place where creative people can come and invite them to play with this thing, this TV channel,” Jonze said by phone. “If we can have a conversation with people and enable conversations between creative people and people watching it, I think that’s interesting.”

Viceland is listening

That interactive exchange with viewers already integral to online media was fostered from the start.

Before the launch, Viceland producers invited fans to leave voicemails about any topic they wished, and excerpts from those messages were broadcast for the first 13 hours the channel went live. People talked about politics, media, their personal struggles; one woman detailed how her life spiraled down after she became disabled.

The message is clear: People are talking, and Viceland is listening.

“We don’t want any pretensions with this thing,” Jonze said.

Of course, pretensions might be the least of Viceland’s problems. Critics are already wondering whether the company has picked the wrong medium as its next world to conquer. Cable TV’s best days may be behind it. Young people are increasingly abandoning television for smartphones.

Vice may be unique online, but its latest incarnation could get lost amid a blur of noisy cable-news shows and reality series.

Then there’s the subtler problem of identity. Can Viceland remain true to its parent company’s startup roots? When does a new spring bubbling up from the ground become part of the mainstream?

Finding its audience

The network is facing a tough media environment.

A&E Networks bought a 10 percent stake in Vice in 2014 for a reported $250 million (Time Warner, the parent of HBO, had failed in an earlier bid to acquire a stake in the company). That deal valued Vice at $2.5 billion, more than the New York Times Co.’s market capitalization. It also paved the way for Vice to take over the underperforming H2.

But some observers are puzzled by the prospect of a new-media company lurching back to old media.

The millennials the channel is aiming for already have plenty of viewing options on YouTube and elsewhere.

“The main challenge for Viceland is that the target audience just doesn’t watch television,” said Jeffrey McCall, a media studies professor at DePauw University. “And it’s even less likely that whatever television they watch is through a paid cable package.”

McCall predicted ratings so low they won’t even be measured by Nielsen. “Even fringe channels, which this will be, have to pay the bills at some point,” he said.

But given Vice’s track record, it might be wise not to underestimate the company.

Jonze wants to seize the opportunity to reinvent what a network means in the 21st century.

“The point … was not just make a bunch of different shows but make the whole channel be the thing that we’re creating,” he said. “The whole thing is one living organism.

“We are really looking at the whole thing as a laboratory.”