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Vice Looks to Tighten Its TV Grip

Last month, Vice Media chief creative officer Eddy Moretti told folks at the Digital Entertainment World Conference that, “Some of our recent investors might have designs for a Vice channel soon.” This was not news. Vice was reportedly in talks with Time Warner Inc. in 2014 about taking over floundering news network HLN — talks that stalled midyear. Then, during a December Paley Media Council conversation in January, Vice CEO Shane Smith floated the possibility of his company acquiring HLN.

Network or no, Vice wants to become a player in television, where at the moment it has only a toehold. The third season of the company’s eponymous news-documentary HBO series premiered March 6. Moretti said in February, at DEW, “Instead of one show on a great channel like HBO, we want 20 shows on one channel or 10 channels.” For a company that sold off stakes for $250 million each to A&E Networks and venture capitalists Technology Crossover Ventures, putting its market valuation at $2.5 billion, television remains a largely untapped frontier — one that could be braved as an independent content producer or the operator of an owned platform on cable.

Brian Solis, principal analyst for Altimeter Group, called the former “a low-risk way of expanding” from Vice’s current status as mostly a producer and distributor of millennial friendly digital content. “There are a lot of networks out there across cable that could co-produce a show with Vice, because they definitely need to monetize that millennial audience,” Solis said.

Vice’s street cred with millennials is the oftcited source of its power. While that makes it a potentially lucrative purveyor of television programming to existing networks, it would also serve Vice well as a platform.

“If you’re a cable operator today, you’re seeing your subscriber losses largely coming from younger audiences and younger households,” James Ackerman, executive chairman of ad software solutions company Broadway Systems, said. “If you can add more services, channels and content that appeal to that audience, the likelihood that they’ll stay loyal subscribers to you increases.”

But whether Vice holds a preternatural grip on the millennial audience or not is not a certainty. A tally provided in August 2014 by ComScore to Digiday found that The New York Times had 20% more millennial readers than Vice did. And Vice’s lone television venture thus far, the HBO series, has not displayed outsized reach among millennials. In Nielsen live-plus-three viewing, Vice season two had a median age of 48 — better than the network’s oldest-skewing offering in 2014, the miniseries Parade’s End (55.3), but well below younger series such as Girls (39.3), Silicon Valley (39.1) and the NFL documentary series Hard Knocks (36.2). It was on par with Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (48.7).

Vice is also not more likely than other HBO series to be viewed on digital and other nonlinear platforms associated with younger viewers. According to HBO, 66% of Vice’s audience comes from linear viewing, while 19% watch on DVR and 15% via on-demand and HBO Go — all in line with most of HBO’s other programming.

But with its valuation and the persistent interest it draws from major media companies, Vice has a vast storage of digital credibility that it can cash in for television ventures.

“When you have digital influence, you start to forge relationships with traditional players looking to get into digital,” Solis said. “There becomes this great construct that brings traditional to digital and digital to traditional.”