How do you go from a controversy-plagued hipster rag to a global, brand-friendly multimedia company? Ask Vice. It took them 10 years.
In certain circles you’re not supposed to admit you like Vice. This is largely a remnant of its early years as a central figure in the rise of hipster culture and of its ousted, racist co-founder Gavin McInnes. Years before we debated Girls and “hipster racism,” Vice was it: a superficially progressive magazine with a conservative leader (much like that other big hipster brand). Think I’m exaggerating? Here are some choice quotes McInnes uttered to the NYT in 2003:
“‘No means no’ is puritanism.”
“I love being white and I think it’s something to be very proud of.”
“I don’t want our culture diluted. We need to close the borders now and let everyone assimilate to a Western, white, English-speaking way of life.”
Shudder. I could go on, but that was ten years ago. This year Vice Media launched not one but two YouTube premium channels, Noisey and Vice, the latest step in a years-long effort to expand beyond its magazine roots and refocus the brand. Shane Smith, the co-founder who became Vice’s public face post-McInnes, started to model the business after Viacom, with whom it has partnered in the past. “Our future is to make seven or eight verticals globally with the biggest partners in the world, underwritten by the biggest brands in the world,” Smith told the Times‘ Tanzina Vega last year. Vice started partnering with trendy, hip companies like Intel and GE. General Electric! General. Electric.
Vice has grown up but inoculated itself against the perception of “selling out” by continuing to release aggressively progressive and edgy docu-series through video, VBS.tv, the precursor to its YouTube channel. Like Gawker Media’s sites, particularly Gawker and Jezebel, Vice, at least for now, mixes sponsored programming, investigative reporting, political essays and fluffy advertiser-friendly programs. Noisey for example features programs from rising artists and established-but-still-pretty-cool ones like MIA and David Lynch.
Most of Vice’s YouTube programming will no doubt be very nice and uncontroversial, just like most of (profitable) television. Still, even then, it’s informed and engaging, like its recent series Discotecture, a docu-series on the past and future of nightlife (which also features my good friend Madison Moore, a leading scholar of nightlife).
Vice videos are fairly broad, with the goal of informing and entertaining an audience that doesn’t have time for much reading. That might change, but for now Vice Media’s YouTube channel is not only releasing regular news videos but also re-releasing some of its old library of hits, many of which are still relevant. Its Americana series features videos on topics as diverse as voguing to Slab City.
Even when it dabbles in superficiality, it’s interesting. Recently it uploaded a piece about “reply girls,” a YouTube phenomenon where attractive often large-chested women post hundreds of “reply videos” on viral videos. The girls get clicks because pretty women get hits on YouTube; it’s trashy and sad, and something YouTube has been fighting for years in an effort to class-up and appeal to bigger advertisers (someone needs to update Laura Mulvey for the YouTube era — see Michele White for starters).
The “Reply Girl” episode shows how Vice can pair cultural politics with its misogynistic bread-and-butter. Because Vice is, at its core, a men’s media company. A recent read-through of the magazine revealed: “there are lots of pictures of exposed breasts in Vice…and nobody wants to see a guy looking at pictures of exposed breasts on the subway ride home from work.” But it’s not hard to argue for Vice as trash with sophistication. The episode gives us real insight into the web video economy and its effect on the women who support it.
Not that Vice isn’t afraid to get more explicitly political. The “Slab City” Americana episode has a companion piece about pollution in the area, and Vice has distributed a number of “Teenage Riot” documentaries. One from early 2011 profiles student protests in London, which, viewed today in 2012, gives some context to the even bigger riots later that year. Another, from late 2011 (pasted below), explores Greece in the midst of the looming economic collapse now tearing the country, and Europe, apart.
These programs work by showing salacious footage of a world descending into a chaos. Everything on Vice should — as with all documentaries — be taken with a hefty grain of salt. But it’s the salt that brings the flavor. They are manipulative by design, and, for that reason, entertaining.
And, again, controversial. Among its most popular series is Shane Smith’s documentary on Liberia, replete with outrageous footage depicting the postcolonial nation as a pit of dysfunction, poverty and tragedy. Programs like that are bound to provoke debate about the ethics of Western media mavens heading to Africa in search of poverty porn. Like in reality television, most Americans won’t watch something real and political unless its consistently “entertaining.” Vice plays right into that impulse.
That said, it’s much more substantial and worldly than most corporate web video, including many of the new YouTube premium channels. In their quest for television’s advertisers, web networks are sticking to safe programming based on topics brands can easily buy into: YouTube’s premium channels are awash with inexpensive, hyper-consumerist lifestyle programs about fashion, food, kids and the home.
There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s how money is made in media today, and I’m still excited about the ambitious channel initiative, on which YouTube is doubling down and which is showing results. Some of those brand-friendly channels are fun, younger versions of traditional media properties. DBG’s newly launched Spaces is HGTV for the post-MTV generation. And like Vice, cheaper production budgets allow these channels to be a bit edgier than TV fare — Spaces, for example, has an Occupy Wall Street episode.
Vice could play a significant role in a maturing but fragmented media market. Hopefully the company will stay true to releasing surprising and decidedly political programs alongside the fluff it needs to make money. Video online might be maturing, but growing up doesn’t have to mean getting boring. As another economic crisis looms — just listen to Paul Krugman — current events could soon grow even more turbulent, dangerous and pressing. I’d like to see it that YouTube, alongside those stupefying haul videos.