Vice Media and A+E Networks have raised the curtain on the long-gestating plan for Viceland, the makeover of A+E’s H2 cabler that amounts to a big bet on a linear TV launch aimed at a demo that is increasingly glued to digital and mobile screens.
Viceland, which is still a working title for the channel, is slated to bow early next year, by Feb. 29 at the latest. The channel will feature what the companies said would be hundreds of hours of new unscripted lifestyle and documentary-style programming produced in-house by Vice Media’s growing team of editorial staffers, described as “the young creative minds that are the heart and soul of Vice.”
Vice’s takeover of the flagging H2 channel has been in the works for more than a year, ever since A+E Networks invested $250 million for a 10% stake in Brooklyn-based Vice, led by co-founder and CEO Shane Smith. With the contribution of H2, which reaches about 70 million U.S. households, A+E’s stake in Vice Media will rise to 20%.
The partners said Viceland aims to fill the “growing white space in the realm of Gen-Y programming” with programs covering fashion, food, music, sports and more.
But for the partners, a 24/7 linear channel aimed at that demo seems a risky move at a time when the 18-34 demo is elusive for established TV networks. A number of recent channel startups — from Participant’s Pivot to Sean Combs’ Revolt — have struggled to reach that demo in meaningful numbers. The partners seem to be banking on the strength of the Vice brand in the digital realm to drive viewers to the TV set. It also seems likely that Viceland may be offered as a streaming channel service via digital bundlers such as Xbox, Apple TV and Roku — although no such plans were referenced in the Viceland launch announcement.
For A+E Networks, the launch of Viceland is a clear signal that the company intends to expand far beyond its traditional base of cablers A&E, Lifetime, History and their international offshoots. A+E president-CEO Nancy Dubuc has vowed to move the company forcefully into the digital realm and shakeup the status quo for the privately held company that is a joint venture of Disney and Hearst. A+E Networks will handle distribution and technical operations for Viceland and work with Vice Media on sales and sponsorships.
“Vice has a bold voice and a distinctive model in the marketplace. This channel represents a strategic fit and a new direction for the future of our portfolio of media assets,” Dubuc said. “Shane Smith has led Vice from a fledgling magazine into a global media brand and all of us at A+E are excited to work with him and his passionate and innovative team.”
Vice has pledged to take a non-traditional approach to advertising on Viceland. It’s expected that commercial loads will be far lower in primetime than on most ad-supported linear channels. Vice has experience in the advertising realm through its prosperous branded content division.
Smith said with characteristic bravado that Viceland is the first in a slew of linear channel launches the company plans around the world.
“This network is the next step in the evolution of our brand and the first step in our global roll-out of networks around the world,” said Smith. “First: It allows us to be truly platform agnostic and enable our audience to view our content wherever they want. Second: It represents a continued growth in our content quality and raises the ceiling even higher for our brilliant teams to attack stories from long form features to multi-episode series and even short form interstitials that will challenge the accepted norms of current TV viewing. Third: We will test new and innovative monetization strategies placing Viceland at the pointy tip of the spear of the rapidly changing terrain of TV advertising.”
Director Spike Jonze has been overseeing development of the channel in his capacity as creative director for Vice Media. Shows lined up for the initial launch slate include “Gaycation,” with Ellen Page and Ian Daniel; “Huang’s World,” with celeb chef Eddie Huang; “Noisey,” with Zach Goldbaum; “Vice World Of Sports, with Sal Masekela; “Black Market,” with Michael K. Williams; “Flophouse,” “Party Legends” and “Weediquette.”
“Our mission with the channel is not that different from what our mission is as a company: it’s us trying to understand the world we live in by producing pieces about things we’re curious about, or confused about, or that we think are funny,” Jonze said. “And if it doesn’t have a strong point of view then it shouldn’t be on this channel.”
Vice’s profile in the media world has skyrocketed in the past few years thanks to the ubiquity of its digital presence and the launch in 2013 of the newsmagazine “Vice” on HBO. Apart from the Viceland channel, Vice Media also plans to launch a nightly half-hour newscast on HBO early next year.
The biggest hurdle in turning H2 into Viceland was cutting new distribution deals with the major MVPDs. It’s a testament to A+E Networks’ clout in the market that H2’s subscriber base was maintained at a time when MVPDs are looking to pare down on channel lineups, not add startups. The pact with DirecTV was set late last month, after the satcaster completed its $50 billion merger with AT&T.
(Pictured: Nancy Dubuc, Shane Smith)