HBO-Vice Deal Should Scare the S*** Out of TV News

Shane Smith Vice Evening News
Photo Illustration by Variety

Leave it to an audacious company like Vice Media to strike a ballsy deal with HBO.

The expanded pact announced Thursday between the two companies would have been impressive in its own right were it just contained to their existing weekly series and a whole new channel to be launched as part of the pay cabler’s new a la carte service, HBO Now.

But the doozy of this deal with a new-media dynamo is a decidedly old-media move: creating a daily TV newscast on HBO’s linear channel. While details of what exactly this newscast will be are sparse beyond an expected premiere in the fourth quarter of the year, it’s hard not to interpret this move as an invasion into one of TV’s most sacred wheelhouses: the evening newscast.

Even before Brian Williams’ career went up in flames at NBC last month, the 6:30 p.m. broadcast berth has looked very vulnerable to attack. The aging and dwindling of the audience tuning in at CBS, NBC and ABC has been hurting them for decades, taking along the cultural clout once enjoyed by these flagships for network news divisions.

That clout is what HBO could very well challenge with Vice. It’s not about taking away advertising dollars at a specific half-hour chunk of time, considering HBO is a premium channel. Besides, the demographic for Cialis and Ensure commercials is decades older than the one Vice has targeted with its brash brand of newsgathering.

And that’s why there’s something deliciously disruptive about the HBO-Vice deal. This isn’t about just another player coming to the table; it’s about the prospect of a bona fide game-changer.

The HBO-Vice deal could be the best bet for some entity to come along and reinvigorate the whole notion of being a news brand, and make it relevant to younger audiences in a way that’s not just commercially viable but truly vital to a democracy dependent on an informed citizenry.

That may sound a bit grandiose, but is there anything about Vice that doesn’t scream big ambitions?

There’s no way a maverick like Vice CEO-correspondent Shane Smith is going to approach a daily newscast in any way other than blowing up any conventional notion of what that is. Forget the suit and tie, pack away the anchor desk.

It’s unknown whether Vice is going to train its focus Stateside the same way the company has been approaching stories overseas, but with the presidential election coming up, there’s no better time to make a splash on the domestic front.

In the digital age, the whole notion of launching a daily newscast feels anachronistic to some degree. That’s why what Vice is doing with HBO Now is probably already making CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel nervous.

Netflix execs may also be squirming in their seat right now. It’s doubtful Vice was bidding its services around town as a daily newscast, but this would have been a perfect move for a company that is trying even harder than HBO to position itself in the marketplace as a media revolutionary. Netflix will have to count on disruptive energy from Chelsea Handler, who is clearly being positioned as an alternative to the boys’ club that is latenight TV.

Another company worth wondering about now is Vice’s minority stakeholder, A&E Networks. While the company will benefit from a deal that enhances the value of Vice, did they get a shot at landing any of the content that is going to HBO? Then again, what Vice does may simply not work in the ad-supported environment of basic cable.

This pact is groundbreaking for Vice, and maybe TV news in and of itself. But this could also be a big moment for HBO, as CEO Richard Plepler and programming president Michael Lombardo could be changing the very complexion of the channel. Here a brand built on scripted entertainment excellence is getting more and more news-oriented coming off its success with John Oliver (wouldn’t it be great to see him collaborate with Vice?). As my colleague Brian Steinberg suggested last year, HBO sure seems to be heading in a direction that would necessitate forming a formal news division.

There’s something about the timing of this announcement that feels auspicious. Just after Jon Stewart signals he’s hanging up his cleats, here comes another outfit with the ability to make us rethink news as we know it.