Launch a Network? F--k, That’s Difficult

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The Vice brand was built on intrepid, and at times foolhardy, reporters venturing into unforgiving environs. So perhaps it’s only fitting that Vice’s move to cable is essentially a march into a danger zone. As if launching a cable network wasn’t a tall enough task, Vice is doing so with a completely original slate of programs. There are no acquired movies, and no established TV shows, to stoke sampling on Viceland.

“They are in a position to completely rewrite the rules of a startup network,” said Linda Ong, CEO of media branding consultancy TruthCo. and part of the team that launched Oxygen in 2000. “Vice is in completely uncharted territory.”

On Feb. 29, Viceland takes the place of H2 in around 70 million homes. Vice does bring enviable brand equity to the world of cable, with a massive batch of online video channels and a weekly newsmag on HBO; the latter’s fourth season debuted earlier this month.

Viceland is fueled by a $250 million investment from A&E, which acquired a 10% stake in Vice 18 months ago. The new net’s primetime shows include Gaycation, hosted by film star Ellen Page; Huang’s World, with chef Eddie Huang; food/travel/rap show F--k, That’s Delicious; and self-explanatory Weediquette. All but one of the shows are created in-house, many of them offshoots of popular Web series.

“That’s something that really differentiates this network,” said Guy Slattery, Viceland general manager.

Vice Grip

While they cover a wide range of topics, the series share common ground in that each has a scrappy auteur-type host front and center with a unique point of view—a phrase one hears frequently out of Vice’s Brooklyn headquarters. “It’s very human, very personal,” said Slattery, former executive VP of marketing at A+E Networks. “Each show has a filmmaker behind it with a distinct voice.”

Acclaimed director Spike Jonze is creative director at Viceland. He described the slate’s mission while addressing reporters at the TCA press tour in Pasadena in January. “Whether it’s a writer, a filmmaker, an author, do they have a point of view?” Jones said. “I think that’s what attracted us to everybody here.”

Slattery said Viceland is in a “constant phase of development” on new series. “We’re open to work with all sorts of people,” he added.

Besides the absence of known-quantity programming, Viceland’s other major hurdle is securing substantial viewers from a base that largely does not watch linear television. And Vice has long reveled in its status as a media outsider, yet now is firmly part of the establishment. “The No. 1 question is, is the brand equity enough to get people to check it out, to come along for the ride?” said Ong.

Vice founder Shane Smith is looking beyond the U.S. cable universe; he calls the launch “the first step in our global rollout of networks around the world.”

Twenty-two years after Vice launched as a Montreal street-culture magazine, that startup ethos is back. “There’s incredible energy here,” said Slattery. “There’s a lot of excitement in the building.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.