Strange bedfellows: can the Viceland and Sky hookup attract the young’uns back to the pay TV model?

Viceland is set to launch as a 24-hour television channel on Sky on 1 December this year.

The value of the move to Sky is clear, in that the Viceland lineup of content promises access to the younger viewers integral to the future of the pay TV company.   

However, at first glance, the move seems somewhat incongruent with Vice Media’s strategy of delivering content to millennials when and where they want it.

As indicated in the ratings figured obtained by The Spinoff editor Duncan Greive, there has been a 41 percent drop in the number of Kiwis aged 18-49 watching linear TV since 2012.

So to see Vice Media shift its focus from YouTube (the place where Kiwi audiences have often watched its documentaries) and put some of its content—albeit content that has never been available to local audiences—behind a paywall on New Zealand’s legacy subscription TV broadcaster feels a bit like turning a bucket upside down and still hoping for it to collect some water.

Earlier in 2016 when Viceland first moved into the television space in the United States, Vice Media chief executive Shane Smith was as bold as ever, telling the Hollywood Reporter: “Twelve months from now we’ll be on the cover of Time magazine as the guys who brought millennials back to TV.”

Nine months in, this hasn’t really happened. Vice Media has been struggling in the ratings department, and these struggles have also been carried across to the UK (Australia has fared better).  

Viceland president Jay Rosenstock, who visited New Zealand last week, tells StopPress the company is taking a long-term view and that ratings are already showing an upward trajectory in other markets.

“In the US, we’ve been able to double our audience since launch, so we’re really very happy with where it is there, and it’s been pretty similar in Canada,” he says.

With shows such as Weediquette, Fuck That’s Delicious, Cyberwar, Blackmarket and Big Night Out, Viceland certainly has the interests of Kiwi millennials covered—but whether they’re willing to watch on paid-for linear TV is questionable.

There are very few international examples of television channels resonating well with millennial audiences, but one channel that stands out is Adult Swim.

In 2015, Adult Swim averaged 669,000 viewers per day in United States in the 18-49 demographic and delivered a median age of 25.

The point here is that it’s not impossible to attract a big millennial audience on television, but it requires a very specific type of content. When viewers flick the switch to Adult Swim, they know exactly what they’re going to get. It’s essentially Cartoon Network for kids who have outgrown Ben 10, but are still looking for light entertainment that’s easy to dip in and out of (Bravo is perhaps the next stage on this evolution). 

Viceland does certainly tick a lot of these boxes. When you flick it on, you know you’re going to get a documentary-style programme each time and because each episode stands alone, there’s no need to be familiar with an elaborate backstory.

Another thing that has made Vice popular with young audiences is that it talks to millennials how they talk to each other about things that matter to them. In lieu of the aloof newsreader, you have younger journalists diving into hairy situations and responding with the same raw emotion the audience is feeling. But this style of documentary is becoming more common across media, and the cool factor is waning to some degree (Reggie Yates Specials and Scam City, both of which in the Duke lineup this year, are also shot in the Gonzo style).

It’s also worth noting that modern definition of taboo is evolving from what it once was. The internet has made so much information so freely available that topics, which previously might have been precluded from mainstream media, have become all too common these days. What was once seen as ‘edgy or taboo doesn’t really surprise modern audiences as much.

Asked whether Vice is concerned about evolving tastes or increased competition from other documentary makers, Rosenstock says that Vice has never battled to stay relevant to its core audience.

“We’ve been successful thus far and we’re continuing to reinvent ourselves and expand. We’re stepping into television, we’re going international, we’re doing new things. This is a company that’s operating at very aggressive pace with the goal of growing.”

And he adds that while there might be increased competition and changing social norms, Vice will always find interesting topics to cover.

“The world is a big place with many complicated things going on, so there are a lot of stories to tell.” 

He doesn’t say this without reason. Even though international ratings might not be as high as they could be, Viceland does seem to be attracting a new audience to Vice Media’s broadcast partners abroad.  

“If you look at the Sky platform [in the UK], which is where we are today, within the factual entertainment channels, we’re delivering the youngest composition of audience to them,” says Rosenstock.

“We’re delivering young, affluent, well-educated, urban men. And that’s a very tough demographic for advertisers to reach.”

What’s more is that the linear TV side of things might not matter all that much. Sky has itself shifted well beyond the remit of television and now has a range of digital distribution channels complementing its linear offering.

“For us, it’s not just about TV,” says Rosenstock.

“One of the benefits for us is that we can go on the cable platforms, the VOD platforms and the catch-up platforms. Because we own all our rights, we can really monetise across all the platforms our distributors own.”

Extending its brand onto Sky also gives Vice access to the television advertisers, which continue to contribute biggest chunk of overall ad spend in New Zealand.

“Television is still a great way to reach audiences, produce premium content and to tap into some additional advertising revenue,” says Rosenstock.

It gives Vice an in; it enables the company to start conversations with brands that might want to extend their brands beyond conventional television ads.  

As Michael Slonim, Vice managing director for Australia and New Zealand, explains: “30-second commercials are going to be a big part of the channel, but then as we start speaking to progressively minded advertisers and agencies in the market, there is some genuine excitement about what we can do outside of a 30-second commercial. Our approach to working with brands is to make content that’s really entertaining for audiences. And the more avenues we have to distribute that content, the better.”

Vice’s in-house creative team recently developed a content-led campaign for the launch of Steinlager’s Tokyo Dry product, and this is the type of work the company is looking to do more of in the future (the most recent clip released this week features cartoonist Toby Morris visiting Japan).

And if selling ads around television leads to the media company’s sales team meeting some interesting people, then we’ll almost certainly see a few more brands attaching their names to Vice in 2017.  

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