When a new TV channel calls its flagship food show Fuck, That’s Delicious, we might surmise that the Reithian ideals are not foremost in its corporate philosophy.
You probably haven’t heard of Viceland. You certainly haven’t watched it. It seeped on to the airwaves with little fanfare and few viewers. Viceland is the new 24-hour TV channel of Vice Media, the Canadian-American outfit that describes itself as the ‘world’s preeminent youth media company and content creation studio’.
Vice began in 1994 as a magazine but now encompasses a news division, a record label, a film studio and myriad digital ventures. It prides itself on being ‘alternative’, ’disruptive’, sticking it to The Man and on appealing to young people — the highly prized ‘millennials’ — who watch the videos it produces on their phones and tablets. It claims hundreds of millions of viewers in more than 30 countries.
Not for Viceland, though. The channel launched on Sky on Monday, 19 September and, in its first few hours, ratings peaked at an estimated 17,200 viewers. Viceland’s schedule is built around documentaries and unscripted programming and, according to its website, it is ‘for and by young people curious about life right now’.
It’s a description that summons up memories of the ‘yoof TV’ experiments of yesteryear: programmes characterised by high-speed editing and jerky camerawork, featuring hyperkinetic presenters addressing the ishoos of the day. They were meant to be made by the kids for the kids but were actually made by people like Janet Street-Porter. The kids didn’t watch in their millions, the phenomenon fizzled out and Janet Street-Porter became president of the Ramblers’ Association.
Viceland marked its opening with a distinctly underwhelming two-hour documentary reeking of the bad old days. The Viceland UK Census asked young people questions about their lives and filmed their answers. It turns out that some young people work, some don’t. Some worry about money, others not so much. There are those who think Britain’s OK. There are those who think it’s awful.
A couple of other offerings also failed to convince. Big Night Out saw presenter Clive Martin — ‘Vice’s T.S. Eliot of rave’ — travel to Donetsk to get drunk with Ukrainian teenagers. That appeared to be the sole aim and it was achieved without incident, despite the commentary’s attempts to generate a sense of jeopardy: ‘I was going to have to go behind military lines ...which wasn’t going to be easy’.
An episode of Black Market was a sympathetic portrait of a pair of young drug addicts who shoplift around £400 worth of goods a day to finance their heroin habit. Joints of meat, woks, irons and male-grooming gift sets (‘People cannot get enough of them at the moment!’) were all grist to their mill. Their plight was, the film suggested, the indirect result of spending cuts that have created the black-market economy that sustains them.
So far, so predictable. But scrabble around the schedule and there is some excellent stuff.
The Vice World of Sports slot currently has two startling documentaries, each of which is positively Reithian. Boys of Bukom tells the story of an impoverished, ramshackle village on the coast of Ghana that has produced more world-champion boxers per capita than anywhere else in the world. The Eternal Derby takes us to Serbia, where football matches between Red Star Belgrade and FK Partizan are an excuse for apocalyptic orgies of violence that make Glasgow’s Old Firm game look like an ecumenical coffee morning.
In Hate Thy Neighbour, sharp-as-a-tack comedian Jamali Maddix, a mixed-race Briton, spends time with far-right groups in Sweden, holding them up to ridicule with his faux-naïf questions à la Louis Theroux.
For Gaycation, Canadian actress Ellen Page investigates homophobia in different countries. The series was nominated for an Emmy, having already screened in the US, where Viceland has been running for six months. It delivers moments of genuine emotional impact as well as some truly shocking scenes, including an interview with a masked former policeman in Brazil who admits to murdering gays.
In truth, for all Viceland’s much-vaunted rebel soul, its best shows would not look out of place in a late-night slot on either BBC2 or Channel 4. And all of its programmes, good and bad, are analogues of long-established formats. Big Night Out is simply Ross Kemp Parties Hard. Black Market is Class A Benefits Street. Gaycation is Whicker’s Queer World.
‘Yes, you could pick individual shows and say, “That could appear on that channel” or “This could appear on this channel”,’ says Kevin Sutcliffe, Viceland,’s senior vice-president of TV and video. ‘The point is, they’re not on those channels. They’re on Viceland, in primetime.’
Sutcliffe is unconcerned by the poor early ratings. ‘What is important to us is to have a very strong brand. Our audience will come to us because they know what the Vice brand is about and we’re hopeful that the strength of the commissioning will keep them there. We will grow over time. We’re just getting into our stride.’
Peter White is international editor of Broadcast magazine. ‘I don’t think the ratings will rocket but I do think the channel will tick along quite nicely,’ he says. ‘It’s useful to Vice for the way in which the company is perceived. They just want to get 16-year-olds to think Vice is cool.’
If Viceland’s opening schedule suggests a broadly left-wing agenda, it’s worth bearing in mind that it was Vice News that produced the recent documentary Jeremy Corbyn: The Outsider (commissioned by Sutcliffe), from which the Labour leader did not exactly emerge covered in glory. In fact, Vice’s carefully nurtured reputation as anti-establishment is somewhat misleading. In November, the New York Times reported that Vice Media was valued at more than $4 billion. The company’s financial backers include such wild-eyed radicals as Fox, Disney and advertising giant WPP. In October 2012, that hip young gunslinger Rupert Murdoch tweeted his approval of the company, predicting that it was headed for ‘global success’.
A cynic might wonder if the ‘edgy’ label is anything more than a way of allowing hard-nosed media execs to hoodwink too-cool-for-school hipsters into consuming conventional fare they might otherwise have shoved to the side of the plate.
You can bet that Viceland would have preferred the Daily Mail to have printed a thunderous condemnation of the channel and all it stands for, rather than recommending one of its programmes in its Weekend Magazine listings guide.