It was announced last week that the well-reputed paint-huffing punks of VICE were partnering up to share their VBS.TV content with CNN—the 30 year-old broadcast news network, America's first all-news channel—on their website. Does it mean anything?
Yeah, it sure does. Because those well-reputed paint-huffers are now anything but, as they've spent the last decade growing from a mere punk magazine into a shrewd, profitable media business, with several different arms, all of which have reached varying levels of success, all of which have adapted to their respectively bad economic climates better than the next. And CNN caught on.
Full disclosure: I've long been a fan of VICE. Their abrasive prose, their stomping out of distinguishments between the lowbrow and the highbrow, and their ability to tap into "hip" zeitgeists around the world more than any other major media company in America right now. That said, I'm also more than willing to point out the fact that VICE has long abandoned their humble punk origins. What was once a company started by three friends—Shane Smith, Suroosh Alvi, and Gavin McInnes—who were making a rag for their downtown junkie friends, has turned into one with...
- ...Their own marketing arm called VIRTUE, which works with branding multinational corporations, many of whom will try to cater to VICE's demographics. And this is when they're not sneaking ads onto the front of their own magazine.
- ...Draconian non-competes against their discharged Black Sheep founder, Gavin McInnes (who went on to start his own website, Street Carnage).
- A communications director who was [seventh item down] pulled straight from the political arena.
- ...Press strategies employed by said communications director like getting a Sunday Times profile, which was sometime after telling everyone they blew $250,000 on a party the fundamentally "punk" VICE readers of yore would've called "soft."
This all goes without saying: there's nothing necessarily "punk" about being successful, but there's something to be said for the way VICE has managed to do it, which is, in some regard, pretty punk.
For one thing, while the New York Times and Conde Nast go through layoff round after layoff round, VICE is still hiring. They're technologically astute, employing Twitter and Tumblr to get their brand out there. They've got their record label, whose artists play their events and appear in their content (a print magazine, a website, and a video website), for which they sell advertising through their marketing arm, when they're not helping the companies buying ads with them build out ad campaigns for other companies. And that $250,000 party they bragged about? Surely, they couldn't have spent a quarter of a million on it. If they did, it all went to drugs, none of which we found. But a lot of people showed up.
Most importantly, though: teens and twentysomethings have been all but abandoned as a specific demographic, one that MTV used to have a tight lock on. Between music videos, their news arm, their once-relevant award shows, and their diverse feature programming, MTV used to drive Whatever The Kids Were Talking About. Now? Not so much. Not that VICE has it, but they're certainly zeroing in on something long left behind for a willing and astute business to pick up. Why wouldn't VICE be the ones to do it? They're not even pandering, either: their latest fiction issue included everything from a B-side work by young, celebrated New York playwright Annie Baker to comprehensive interviews with The Wire creator David Simon and Brokeback Mountain writer Annie Proulx. Last year's? Harold Bloom. And then there's VBS.TV, which is where CNN comes in.
The key section in the press release:
Under the terms of the agreement, every Wednesday beginning on January 20, 2010, a new episode from VBS.TV will be featured at www.cnn.com/vbs. This special section also will include behind-the-scenes essays, photo slideshows and archives of VBS.TV stories that have been featured previously on CNN.com, as well as a link to VBS.TV's news room, http://vbs.tv/newsroom, where CNN's online audience will have access to VBS's extensive collection of international and domestic news stories. The VBS.TV episodes selected for CNN.com also will be highlighted in other relevant sections of the site.
We're not talking about a huge deal, here: it's merely a content syndication. But users of CNN's website are going to be directed to VICE's content. That's the interesting part, especially when you consider that CNN's a network still trying to find their identity.
They're tried to avoid the raging, bleeding-heart liberalism of MSNBC or the angry, Howard Beale-inspired fire-and-brimstone punditry of Fox News (hence: goodbye, Lou Dobbs). Instead, they've ended up with, um...a few palatable voices. Don Lemon! And, uh...that other guy! And then they have their own share of grating, rambling voices that follow. They've also got people who appeal to The Youngs: Sanjay Gupta...was an Obama nominee, or something! Campbell Brown's kind of hot?
Then there's Anderson Cooper, the star of the network: someone who's not-so-ambiguous sexuality is often driving the conversation about him. Someone who's often found blurring the line between reporting and action film heroism, when he's not yukking it up with Kathy Griffin on New Year's.
And about that New Year's, which was practically a page ripped right from VICE itself. There was Anderson Cooper, standing around with Kathy Griffin, while she made jokes about poppers, which was sometime around when they cut to Sushi the Drag Queen, being dropped from a giant stiletto heel in—where else?—Key West. Pair this with Larry King, who's best interviews still involve him farting on celebrities, and you have a network who's sole identifier right now is that they're at least trying to spice things up a little bit, and maybe cater to a younger audience. But that's it.
For VICE, this is a legitimization of their efforts to grow into a news source, and will only serve as motivation to move forward as one. Their latest film, The VICE Guide to Liberia, is (at the very least, for the first twenty minutes) as harrowing, fucked up, and memorable a news documentary you're going to see over the next year. It's solid material, not just for the web, but for documentaries, period. It's also the kind of thing CNN will need to have if a reputation for cultivating somewhat risque programming is the direction they actually do want to go in. Whether or not it's a successful one has yet to be seen, but it's certainly not a direction anyone else is moving in right now.
A few months after VICE opened up shop in 1994, Clueless came out in 1995. In it, there's a scene where Paul Rudd and Alicia Silverstone are fighting over the remote. He wants to watch CNN, and she wants to watch Beavis and Butthead on MTV. The scene was supposed to illustrate two distinctly different kinds of The Youth: the socially conscious, and the culturally conscious. Funny what can change in 15 years, as CNN's now looking to Beavis and Butthead for some of the best content they can lay claim to. This is all while MTV lays by the wayside, churning out spinoffs of The Hills for mouthbreathing, overgrown fourteen year-olds. Then again, they did fund VBS.tv. So what's gonna happen to the MTV brand?
Anyone's guess. But know this: these guys may have carefully cultivated a reputation for being paint-huffing hipster savants, but there's been nothing in that bucket but a few decent ideas, the most important of which is their willingness to adapt, while keeping that carefully cultivated identity intact. The question remains: when will their failing media conglomerate contemporaries finally take notice?