The Inside Story of VICE’s $100 Million Television Gamble

Matty Matheson is the greatest television show host on Earth — at least, according to Matty Matheson.

The ebullient, tattoo-blanketed celebrity chef and co-founder of Toronto restaurant Parts & Labour is void of the typical Canadian aversion to boasting. He’s made the claim more than once: at press events for VICELAND, VICE Media’s new 24-hour channel, which will air his show Dead Set on Life, and now again within the first two minutes of his debut episode. “I’m the best host in the world,” Matheson shouts out from the screen, his arms popping out in classic “whut” bravado. “This is the best show in the world. You’re welcome.”

In the tired CanCon landscape of prairies and politeness, Matheson’s signature brash, profanity-soaked style is refreshing. Certainly, VICE’s description of Matheson’s show as an “unscripted entertainment series” feels like an understatement. Dead Set on Life is an energetic hodgepodge of biography, Canadian culinary adventure, small town commentary, sentimentality, lowbrow dude-bro humour, and hipster consumerism. Matheson describes it as a no-rules, anti-cooking show, the millennial antidote to Top Chef or Restaurant Makeover. “I don’t want to make a food show,” he tells me. “I want to make a human show.”

He’s so genuinely enthusiastic that I find myself nodding along when he later brags that VICE Media, the born-in-Canada content giant, is set to radically change television. “I think people are going to buy television sets so they can watch VICELAND,” Matheson says. “People are going to get cable again to watch VICELAND.” That is, of course, the dream — and the gamble. VICE Canada launched the channel in late February as part of its $100-million joint venture with media behemoth Rogers. It billed the station as a destination for the elusive but lucrative 18-to-34 millennial set — the very same generation that is abandoning cable en masse. VICE isn’t worried about sad statistics, though. To the self-proclaimed “leader in producing and distributing high-quality youth content,” VICELAND is not even a collection of shows, anyway, but an ethos — the energetic embodiment of a YOLO generation captured in multi-device-sized screens.

Canada’s mainstream media is in a major rut. The National Post was the last new kid on the media block to shake things up, and that was nearly 20 years ago, in 1998. The big media brands have been slow to innovate, and thus have been hemorrhaging readers, viewers, and advertising dollars to the digital landscape. Layoffs abound. Resources are vanishing. As the old guard struggles to determine how, when, and where it will deliver the news and entertainment, consumers are forced to wade through the deluge of ideas — some brilliant, some half-baked — leaving us in the ironic position of having to carefully consider where we get our content, even as a finger swipe or button click means it’s also never been easier to access.

VICE is the mind-boggling exception. Though it has come a long way from its scrappy beginnings in 1994 as a Montreal magazine with acid-tongued fashion dos and don’ts, VICE has smartly and deliberately never lost its countercultural, fuck-you vibe. It’s not new, and yet it feels eternally fresh, a brand balancing act that’s made it one of the most influential and financially successful media companies on the planet. If you’re to believe CEO and co-founder Shane Smith’s last valuation announcement — and you really don’t have a choice, no matter how unbelievable it sounds, since as a private company VICE doesn’t have to disclose its numbers — the company is worth more than $4.4 billion. To put that into context: that makes VICE easily worth more than traditional media titans like The New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as new generation phenoms like Buzzfeed, which has more than double VICE’s web traffic.

Despite presenting itself as the misfit of the media elite, with more than 800 staff in 30 countries, VICE is, in many ways, the poster child of the new establishment. Its success has as much to do with its reporting signature — an eagerness to enthusiastically investigate the darkest corners of the world, some of which critics have unflatteringly called “disaster porn” — as it does its ability to sell its own edgy, counterculture coolness. Every media company shills its audience to advertisers, but VICE’s sleight of hand stands out as particularly masterful: it hustles its hipster authenticity to some of the largest, uncoolest companies in the world, making VICE Media and its various iterations, including and especially VICELAND, as much a destination for youth as it is a vehicle to sell to them.

Now VICELAND is the company’s biggest, riskiest step yet into corporatized millennial coolness. As Smith hyped to media, “Twelve months from now we’ll be on the cover of Time magazine as the guys who brought millennials back to TV.” Indeed, if VICE wins the gamble, it could fundamentally change TV audiences, and the way they watch, forever. But first it will have to bring a new, hip viewership to an old and very often unhip medium — a tricky feat for a company that’s found success in subtly commodifying dissent.


IN THE EARLY 1990s, Montreal was at the height of its cheap-living, cultural high. Smith, Gavin McInnes, and Suroosh Alvi launched VICE as a free punk magazine dubbed Voice of Montreal, with the help of government funding and a group of Haitian backers. Two years later, they bought out the original publishers and dropped the “O,” reaching cult status through careful distribution in select, aspirational cooler-than-you stores. The resulting buzz was enough to attract the attention of Canadian tech millionaire Richard Szalwinski, who bought and relocated the magazine to New York City in 1998, and later sold it back to the founding trio for less than he paid after the dot-com bubble hit him hard in 2000.

During the Szalwinski era, however, Vice grew its presence and also cemented its trademark tone: an honestly irreverent, no-shits-to-give, sex-drugs-and-booze take on Boomer-era, status quo culture. Vice wasn’t indie anymore, but unlike the rest of popular media, it was actively anti-establishment, rallying hard against the ultra staid and the politically correct. By the early 2000s, Vice was the envy of many big companies that were desperately scrambling to reach the millennial audience — the teen and twentysomething core of up-and-coming consumers who mistrusted brands, eschewed traditional advertising, and loved the Internet (and had enough disposable income to make it very worth advertisers’ time). It was not lost on anyone that while others floundered to reach millenials, VICE had them eating out of its palms. To leapfrog forward, all VICE had to do was cash in on its audience. And it did.

Its first major investor was MTV, a division of Viacom and then-reigning arbiter of institutionalized counterculture, which backed the VICE Guide to Travel in 2006. From there, VICE inked partnership deals with and secured funding from some of the biggest companies in the world, including 21st Century Fox, Dell, and Disney. Today, VICE’s website is replete with cash-rich partnerships with companies like Google and Levi’s. In addition to VICELAND, it also has a digital channel, its website, the website’s various offshoots, or verticals, like Broadly and Motherboard, the print magazine, and a record label; its worldwide offices produce more than 6,000 pieces of content a day. While media conglomerates everywhere contemplate layoffs and shuttering their operations, VICE is making bank. It may have shed its humble hipster beginnings, but it’s done so quietly: surface-wise VICE has never appeared to dilute its anti-everything attitude — even as its founders become 40-plus-year-old millionaires and the company itself an advertising conduit for old-school brands.

“People are going to buy TVs to watch VICELAND.”

But the company’s rise hasn’t been without its bumps. In 2003, the first cracks split between McInnes and his co-founders, Smith and Alvi. That year, he upped the offensive ante when he told The New York Times: “I love being white, and I think it’s something to be very proud of. I don’t want our culture diluted.” Smith and Alvi were reportedly furious, and, in the fall-out, McInnes wrote an open letter to Gawker apologizing and claiming it was a joke. But the damage couldn’t be undone: McInnes was deemed a loose-lipped loose cannon who could halt VICE’s growth. He was pushed out a few years later. He’s since suggested he was glad to leave; VICE was becoming too polished.

It wasn’t the company’s only PR bungle. Just last year, for example, an employee at VICE Canada axed a Rogers mention in a piece on sexual harassment throughout Canadian media. Press watchdog Canadaland published some leaked emails online, which read in part: “We had to cut that Rogers section simply because we’re in transition into a relationship with them right now and don’t want to make that any rockier than it has to be.” When Canadaland editor Jesse Brown later invited VICE’s head of content, Patrick McGuire, on his podcast and challenged him about the apparent kowtowing to its business partner’s brand image, McGuire brushed aside the implication: “This is not an opinion that was coming from me or any editor.” The whole thing was curiously painted as an employee gone rogue.

None of this has dampened the appetite for VICE’s audience, or its audience’s appetite for VICE — and it’s easy to see why Rogers, the epitome of Boomer-centric branding, wants what VICE has. As part of its $100-million investment, Rogers has commissioned nine Canadian-made series, including Matheson’s Dead Set on Life, Weediquette, a nuanced take on the drug’s cultural and medical relevance, and Shroom Boom, about the rise of mushrooms — the eating-as-a-meal kind. Ellen Page’s Gaycation, which explores gay culture around the world, is another, and has already received significant praise. VICE has also accessed government funding, though it won’t say how much, and, as a result, the channel is largely Canadian-made and driven — though VICE has been careful to note the Canuck-heavy lineup is simply good TV, not boring ol’ CanCon pumped out to meet the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunication Commission’s (CRTC) strict guidelines.

The creative mastermind behind VICELAND — Spike Jonze of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Her fame — isn’t known for boring content. As co-president of the channel, Jonze has been in charge of building it from scratch, telling The Globe and Mail: “I like the idea of this thing being alive — you can it turn it on any time of the day and here is this living thing made by a group of people not trying to sell you some idea, just trying to offer you up something they made.” He’s said more than once that he’s learning on the fly, calling VICE a DIY company, and pointing to the Beastie Boys, David Letterman and Miranda July as inspiration.

According to McGuire, VICE has 32 shows slated for the network, which will be rolled out over the course of the year. Eleven of those are made out of VICE’s Toronto studio, three of which were commissioned from independent producers. There are teams across the country, with additional shows coming from the company’s New York, LA, and London offices. VICE will also repurpose a bunch of its online content to fill in the many hours of a 24/7 channel, and has acquired movie licensing for time slots like The Vice Guide To Film. In Canada, Rogers and VICE have signed carrier deals with 25 providers, potentially putting the new channel into 7.5 million living rooms. South of the border, Rogers has teamed up with A&E, which boosted its ownership stake to 15 percent and in return gave VICE its H2 channel, plunking VICELAND into roughly 70 million American homes. The same programming lineup airs in both countries, less dependent on geography and more on pure radness.

The Rogers partnership also allowed VICE to build a new 30,000-square-foot Canadian headquarters in Toronto’s Liberty Village. Inside the bustling, industrial-esque space, there’s evidence of VICE’s bid for world domination: staff has jumped from fewer than 40 to almost 200 — including hires from mainstream television and news outlets like the National Post, the Canadian Press, and the CBC — and many of them are the same millennial set that VICE wants to reach. Its newly built TV studio has the capacity to do everything in-house, from development to production to post-production; and there’s room, of course, for VICE’s in-house ad agency division called Virtue, which was launched globally in 2006 and has 500 employees worldwide. The Toronto branch will focus on bringing VICE’s signature sponsored content spin to the broadcast realm, schmoozing for partnerships and creating its own on-air campaigns. (In fact, VICE’s chief international growth officer, David Purdy, said in a CRTC hearing that the potential 30-second-commercial-spot and sponsored-TV content revenue was a big factor in launching VICELAND: “It sounds a bit crass, but absolutely we did it for the money.”) In true VICE-party style, there’s also a theatre for screening and a fully stocked bar. Smith has not-so-jokingly called VICE “a cult,” and that’s evident here, too. Even as staff and freelancers grumble about low pay and move to unionize across several offices, others are so pumped to be here they strive hard for a coveted VICE ring — literally a gold-plated ring that says VICE in the signature graffitied logo.

Resource-wise, VICE has the cash and the clout to be unstoppable. In all of this, though, there is one obvious question: why does a brand built on cultivated authenticity even want to enter the fuddy-duddy world of TV? If VICE can continue to make awesome, forward-thinking on-screen content through its digital channel, why bother with a linear one?

After all, VICE’s bread-and-butter audience is what TV industry hand-wringers call “cord-cutters” and “cord-nevers.” While people of all ages are ditching cable for cheaper streaming services like Netflix, millennials easily account for the largest numbers of those pulling the plug on cable.

Yet, Mario Mota cautions against reading the numbers as a TV-is-dead narrative. Mota is the co-founder of Ottawa-based research firm Boon Dog Professional Services, which specializes in the broadcasting and media sectors. When I spoke to him shortly after VICELAND’s launch, he was still waiting for the final Canadian cable subscriber numbers to come in (Quebec’s Vidéotron was the last to report). He was certain, however, that the data would reveal another record decline. At the same time, he argues, those dipping numbers still represent a drop in the bucket of the whole market. There are about 11.5 million cable TV households in Canada. Boon Dog’s numbers show an annual cross-country decline of about 200,000–to-250,000 cable subscribers. Even if that number spikes, it’s still only about two per cent of the total market.

Why does a brand built on cultivated authenticity even want to enter the fuddy-duddy world of TV?

On top of that, Mota adds, millennials who cut their cable are likely still watching TV content — probably a lot of it. They just don’t want it tethered to a traditional TV system. They want to watch what they want, when they want it, on the device they want to watch it on. These millennial viewers don’t have an attachment to brands, to channels, or to networks. They have an attachment to content. It’s the difference between gushing about Better Call Saul, for example, and saying “I love AMC HD,” the channel that produces it. Even the most diehard Saul followers are not necessarily loyal when it comes to where or how they watch the show: it could be via a downloading cloud site, a
streaming service, a one-off purchase on Apple TV, their local library, or even, yes, the actual network channel from which it originates — whatever is most convenient and cost-effective for them.

“That’s why VICELAND is super interesting,” says Mota. “A TV channel seems like an oxymoron for what they’re trying to do — the audience they’re trying to target.” In an era where traditional companies, like VICE’s partner Rogers, are scrambling to capture the all-elusive digital audience, VICE is already there: it already has what everyone else wants.

“We’ve partnered with VICE for precisely that reason,” says Colette Watson, the vice president of broadcast and TV operations at Rogers. “They’re more fearless than we are. In the traditional TV industry, we tend to be more risk averse and that is not how I would describe the people at VICE.” For Rogers, she says, the whole point is that VICELAND isn’t interested in airing traditional television. VICE Media’s expertise, she adds, is in creating bold content that’s also outside of the linear box of television. Its creators have thrown episode times and formats out the window. And, in many ways, there’s no better time to do it, argues Watson, than when television, as a medium, is in a period of disruption; audiences are craving change. What better time than now to introduce them to, as Watson puts it, “the VICE way?” Smith, Alvi, Jonze, and the VICELAND TV gang’s true genius may lie not in its supposed revolutionizing of television or the news, but in its ability to repackage it.


THERE’S A FAMOUS SCENE in the 2011 documentary Page One: Inside The New York Times in which the late NYT media reporter David Carr smacks down the founders of VICE for implying they were the first to report on the devastating and horrific condition in Liberia. “Time out. Before you ever went there we’ve had reporters there reporting on genocide after genocide,” Carr says, his cigarette smoke voice dripping in disdain. “Just because you put on a fucking safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do.” It’s a good reminder that, as far as topics of reporting go, VICE, as much as it would like us to believe, isn’t groundbreaking. Traditional outlets have done, and continue to do, the same stories.

Though it wants viewers and readers over the 18-to-34 range, and thinks it will get them, it won’t cater to them. Watchers of CBC or HBO will gravitate toward VICE because it’s giving them something new and they’re desperate for it, figures Ryan Archibald, managing director of VICE Media Canada, but they’re not who VICE has in mind as its core audience. His aversion to cannibalizing VICE’s youth audience is smart. The grabs made by many companies for millennial customers — and not only in the media world — tend to read as transparently desperate, overly manufactured, or plain weird. Take, for instance, London-based anti-aging wrinkle serum skincare company Nip + Fab, which was widely mocked after it announced last year that 17-year-old Kylie Jenner was its new brand ambassador. Love or hate its point of view, VICE is unfailingly devoted in its approach.

Part of its millennial alchemy is flash, sure: a heavy reliance and ultramodern take on drug culture coverage, electronic music, and sex. But it also respects the audience as people who are engaged in the world around them, correctly trusting that you don’t have to be over 40 to want to know about stuff like ISIS terrorism, water crises in Indigenous communities, and sexism against Hillary Clinton. More than that, it sends millennials out to report on those issues. On VICE’s website, headlines like “Meet ‘Juan Direcshon,’ the Mexican One Direction” and “Furries Love Zootopia” exist next to ones like “Justin Trudeau Can Fully Back Pipeline or Aboriginal Rights, But Not Both” and “B.C. to Make Campuses Get Their Act Together on Sexual Assault” without comment, irony, or hierarchy.

Last year, during Canada’s federal election, VICE secured town hall interviews with Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair (Stephen Harper, perhaps predictably, declined). The event space was packed, plaid shirts and man-buns intermingling with blazers and grey hair. In a small nod to its serious nature, host Damian Abraham, of Canadian hardcore punk band Fucked Up, wore a white button-up to introduce Trudeau and — because it’s VICE — kicked-off the event thanking Rogers-owned sponsor Fido. VICE promoted the town hall as an interview that focused on “issues of importance to young Canadians,” giving it space to tackle topics other media tended to shy away from: the environment, missing and murdered Aboriginal women, cybersecurity, LGBTQ rights, and, no big shock, weed. It was VICE’s big push into the establishment, a successful toehold into the political broadcast world dominated by traditional suit-laden stations — and, arguably, a space the VICE of yesteryear would have avoided or shunned at all costs.

You could look at this two ways: cynically, VICE has sold out just by participating in the mainstream circus — or, perhaps, this new VICE recognizes its millennial viewers crave someone to take them and their world views seriously, and has stepped in to fill the black hole. Because basically, if you’re a millennial, VICE just, like, gets you, tho.


AS FAR AS TV host personalities go, Matheson and his VICELAND colleague Ben Makuch are apples and oranges. Former Canadian press reporter Makuch is the well-coiffed investigative whiz who heads the docu-series Cyberwar. (It’s worth mentioning that he recently went toe-to-toe with the RCMP for refusing to hand over his correspondence with a Canadian who’s fighting for ISIS.) If Matheson and Dead Set on Life speak to VICELAND’s commitment to fun, personality-driven TV, Makuch’s show demonstrates the company’s belief in millennials’ endless curiosity and appetite for serious issues. In its first episode, Cyberwar investigates the infamous Sony hack, blamed on North Korea, and from there, plunges deep into the shadowy world of hacking and digital spying.

As Makuch says, it’s not unfathomable for an established news program like 60 Minutes or even Canada’s The Fifth Estate to similarly devote an episode to hacking — and he happily allows that both dinosaur institutions produce excellent journalism. But it’s hard to imagine either would tackle the issue through the same lens as VICELAND, or even be able to score the same sources. Makuch has sat down with hackers across the world, many of whom rarely, if ever, give interviews. He thinks it’s largely because he speaks the same language as them; he finds the same things cool and interesting. In these cases, VICE means access. It means not having to explain the cultural context of growing up on the Internet to either the reporter or to the reporter’s audience.

Because basically, if you’re a millennial, VICE just, like, gets you, tho.

The Cyberwar host is convinced this fresh, disruptive approach to TV will not only attract VICE’s core youth audience, but bring in whole new ones. He suspects, as many within the VICE umbrella hope, that the company’s venture into TV will lure viewers tired of the build-a-deck-singer-star-restaurant-cupcake haze, regardless of age. In TV, ratings are king. For its first six months, VICELAND has decided to forgo US national Nielsen ratings — leaving all those who are wondering in the dark. Local ratings, on the other hand, have been released and reportedly aren’t great. The first few weeks of VICELAND show a drop of over 70 per cent compared to the last few weeks of A&E’s H2, the station it took over. Data from Rentrack, another, smaller ratings tracker, confirms a similar drop on a national level, claiming VICELAND only had an average of 60,400 viewers each day in its first week. But, Neilsen has publicly said early numbers aren’t a great indicator of long-term growth or success — just look at the bashing the Oprah Winfrey Network took over its initial low numbers in its early days.

Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide, has already tried to make much of the low ratings. Shortly after the public criticism, VICE fired back: “These numbers aren’t even remotely accurate in representing the number of viewers our programming has reached across all screens in just a few weeks.” It stressed that its previews via online outlets, like YouTube, have already climbed up to more than 100 million views. Certainly, Zucker, who’s long been in a feud with VICE Media to see whose brand wins the future of news (Smith set the tone in 2014 when he said of CNN, “Everything they do is a fucking disaster”) would love to see the company fail on his turf. But so would a lot of others. A darling in some Media Land circles (Smith was, for instance, recently named the Cannes Lion 2016 Media Person of the Year for “shaping the future of media”), VICE is viewed as a pompous upstart elsewhere on the block (usually by the same types of people who see millennials as entitled assholes). Who’s right? We’ll all just have to stay tuned.