Sunday, October 23, 2016
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Spike Jonze Brings New Vibe To Programming For Viceland
Spike Jonze appears during the Viceland panel at the A&E 2016 Winter TCA on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016, in Pasadena, Calif. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
Vice Media/A&E cable channel set to debut on Monday
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The new Viceland cable channel takes to the air Monday with the ultimate in user-generated programming.

The network set up a phone number a few weeks ago and invited callers. They reached a recording with simple instructions - talk about what kept them up at night, or what they would do as president. Much of the network's first day on the air will be footage of executives listening to these messages.

"Turning these voicemails into the first 13 hours of our channel wasn't intentional," said filmmaker Spike Jonze, Viceland's co-president. "It just happened when we realized how interesting these voicemails were."

There's a "let's put on a show" vibe to Viceland, a partnership between Vice Media and the A&E Networks. It replaces the H2 network on cable and satellite systems, available in about two-thirds of the nation's television homes.

Don't be deceived. While Viceland's success isn't preordained, chief executive Shane Smith didn't turn Vice from a Canadian punk rock magazine to a company worth more than $4 billion in two decades by chance. Vice is an online giant that also airs news programming on HBO, and Viceland gives the company a way to tap into television advertising income.

Viceland will start at 6 a.m. ET Monday with a mix of lifestyle-related programming. "Gaycation," with actress Ellen Page and friend Ian Daniel showing gay and lesbian cultures around the world, has the highest profile.

Other charter series include "Flophouse," about homes where aspiring comics room together; "Weediquette," about the legal marijuana industry; "Balls Deep," profiling people from their point of view; and rapper Action Bronson's exploration of culinary differences in cities where they tour. Celebrity chef Eddie Huang and actor Michael K. Williams are making future series.

"Noisey" looks at the cultures surrounding music scenes, and its first episode features Kendrick Lamar introducing people who inspired his hit album, "To Pimp a Butterfly."

"God knows who's going to watch it," said series creator Andy Capper. "It's a big, grand experiment - kind of a brand new audience for us."

Capper's material has already been viewed online millions of times, however. In fact, an unexpectedly strong reaction to stories about musicians' communities posted as outtakes sparked the series idea itself. The Lamar episode of "Noisey" has already been intentionally leaked online to drum up interest in Tuesday's 10 p.m. EST television premiere.

Virtually all of Viceland's programming is produced in-house, which gives the network a consistency of voice. Much like Vice news reports, the shows have an appealing urgency and immerse viewers in unfamiliar worlds, rather than observing from afar. Empathy and curiosity are the philosophical underpinnings.

"We're just starting," Jonze said. "We don't exactly know what we're doing and we're learning as we go. None of us have ever created anything like this before. That's what makes it exciting for me personally, that I don't know how to do this. It's the way I've always worked and the company has always worked. We don't hire someone who knows how to do it; we go and figure it out ourselves."

Jonze and co-president Eddy Moretti have hired someone who knows the territory: Guy Slattery, an A&E Networks veteran who has overseen marketing and branding at some of the company's networks, is general manager.

The idealistic, youth-focused programming mix is reminiscent of Current, the ill-fated cable channel started and shuttered by former Vice President Al Gore. Viceland won't be reporting Nielsen company ratings at first, a sure sign that viewership numbers are expected to be small.

Viceland shouldn't be judged by the standards of traditional television networks, said Rich Greenfield, chief researcher at the equity firm BTIG.

Smith has proven an ability to reach consumers through his digital properties, he said. Television still controls a large chunk of the advertising dollars, and it stands to reason Vice's advertisers will be eager to follow them there. Viceland's biggest hurdle will be viewers finding the channel.

"To me, it's not so much about Vice going into TV," Greenfield said. "It's about Vice going everywhere."

Jonze is careful not to limit what he's creating to television. He's producing content that he expects will be consumed in different ways.

"The TV channel is one means of distribution," he said. "It's this organism. We're using the budget for the cable channel to make this organism with people who have a point of view about the world."