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Vice’s Shane Smith Raises Game for HBO While Pursuing Digital Forays

Shane Smith knows he’s living dangerously, and he doesn’t give a damn. In his role as a producer and host of the “Vice” TV series on HBO, he is committed to “irreverence and unorthodoxy,” and he won wide praise recently for a startling piece about breakthrough cancer cures. In his role as a corporate CEO of Vice Media, meanwhile, he is pledged to orthodoxy — making money. And he is fast becoming a media folk hero for aggressively leading a print company into the frenzy of the digital and mobile universe.

The 45-year-old Smith knows that adulation in the press can quickly turn to rancor, especially when careers take off as dramatically as his. He presents the image of a swaggering and somewhat eccentric Canadian dealmaker — definitely a fun guy, yet one who also runs a company that projects itself to be worth $5 billion by year’s end, with 1,500 employees (per the Wall Street Journal) busily creating content formillennials and hipsters in
36 countries.

Starting life as punk magazine Voice of Montreal, co-founded by Smith in 1994, Vice has a corporate lexicon today that includes Noisey (geared to music), Munchies (food), Thump (electronic dance music), Motherboard (technology) and other digital adventures. Ask him whether he regards himself as a journalist or a CEO, and he responds, “I guess I’m a founder. I like to create shows. I also like to close deals.”

The deals are abundant — Vice has a sprawling network of digital channels, plus pacts with mobile carriers, and a movie production agreement with Fox. There are news networks in Italy and France, a fashion magazine (i-D) in London, and even an advertising agency called Virtue (I’m not sure why it’s called that or, for that matter, why the whole company is called Vice). Smith also wants to start a female-oriented digital channel. And he is involved in sporadic negotiations with A&E to launch a linear network.

He acknowledges that the HBO association “has forced us to raise our game.” What was once a somewhat erratic show (one episode depicted Dennis Rodman’s visit to North Korea) is now settling into a tough-minded investigative news program. Its piece on cancer explored new methods of using viruses (some lethal) to destroy cancer cells.

Is there anything Smith doesn’t want? For one, he doesn’t want to lose. Always competitive, he was pleased that Vice was one of the first 10 channels selected to be part of Snapchat’s Discover platform. Every one of Vice’s diverse sectors is profitable, he insists. “The business plan is simple: We license content. We’d like to auction off every piece of content five or six times.”

He also wants to enjoy himself He has a wife and two kids, but also is a dedicated bon vivant. When he scored a huge payday playing blackjack in Las Vegas earlier this year, he promptly threw a $300,000 dinner for friends, ordering steaks and pricey wine.

If he registers occasional discomfort, it’s with his role as a TV host. “I’m not an actor, and I get frustrated with my performance,” he growls. “A friend told me the other day, ‘Stop talking to the g-dd-mn camera.’ He has a point.”

But he has no intention of stopping. The HBO show is doing well, like the rest of the Vice empire. And Smith clearly relishes having escaped the ever-shrinking confines of the print world.

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