This story first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In 2006, after spending 26 years at Viacom, helping launch MTV, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central and pop-cultural touchstones like South Park, Beavis and Butt-Head and The Daily Show, Tom Freston was fired as Viacom’s chief executive.
Freston walked away with $80 million in severance, and his next move was equally surprising: Rather than work for another big media company, Freston decided to invest in and advise Vice Media, a company that caters to younger audiences with videos, news stories and other content of the viral breed.
Co-founded by CEO Shane Smith, Vice began in 1994 as a small punk magazine based in Montreal. After securing investments from Freston, merchant bank the Raine Group and communications services firm WPP, Vice has evolved into a production house and an international brand that digitally distributes a range of programming from edgy and adventurous news (“Hezbollah’s Propaganda War”) to videos that are more irreverent and juvenile (cats having sex) to its younger-skewing viewers.
Vice has invested more than most media companies in covering international affairs, putting their correspondents into harm’s way as others are pulling out — only they would bring Dennis Rodman to North Korea. In the first episode of its HBO newsmagazine show that premiered on April 5 — which pulled in 830,000 viewers, a solid showing for a Friday night on pay cable — Vice documented the rising number of political assassinations in the Philippines and the Taliban’s use of children as suicide bombers in Afghanistan.
Vice still publishes its magazine (which reaches 1.1 million readers), has a YouTube channel with 1.6 million subscribers, a record label and an in-house ad agency and is making theatrical films (Snoop Dogg‘s Reincarnated, Fishing Without Nets). The company works with brands like Intel and Dell and, according to a source close to the company, made $175 million in revenue in 2012, mostly from advertising. From their colorfully bohemian headquarters in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, Freston, 67, and Smith, 42, talked about Vice’s success, the perils of connecting with today’s youth and how Vice compares to MTV.
The Hollywood Reporter: Forbes valued Vice as being worth a billion dollars. Can you say how much Vice is worth?
Shane Smith: We’re a private company, so it’s weird to value it. If people are valuing us at a billion dollars, then fine. We’re not selling, though. How big is it? I think we have 1,250 full-time employees. We have about 4,000 contributors; we’re in 34 countries. So spatially, it’s very big. Monetarily, we’re doing quite well.
THR: Is there a way you measure success?
Tom Freston: I measure success in terms of the connection with the audience, which we’ve been able to do in spades. I mean, it’s very hard to do that. You think about it, you go back in time, you can say, “Well, there’s like Saturday Night Live and Rolling Stone or MTV.” I think Vice is in that category now.
THR: There are a lot of companies out there trying to hit youth culture. What are you doing differently that you believe is attracting so much attention?
Smith: Gen Y have the most sophisticated bullshit detectors on earth, so the only way to circumvent those bullshit detectors is to not bullshit. That sounds very easy, but it isn’t.
THR: What are old-line media companies missing about connecting with today’s youth?
Freston: Authenticity is really important, and sometimes that’s really hard to get. It comes out as pretty contrived if it’s just laid out by some giant media company — it’s hard for them to do it. Vice started from nothing, and it became this. Could a big conglomerate have invented it and foisted it on the public? Probably not. If you look at the Internet, it’s been hard for a lot of the traditional media companies to launch viable brands. Consumers seem to choose the new thing, and that works out well for Vice.
THR: Vice has done particularly well with online video. Has that received enough respect?
Freston: Well, I don’t think online video has gotten the respect, probably because a lot of times it doesn’t deserve it. I’ve made no secret out of that. But I think online is a better platform. If you look at the metrics, if you look at the delivery system, if you look at social — all of the things that online can do — TV can’t compete.
THR: But here you are doing a new HBO show.
Smith: If HBO, sort of the gold standard of TV, is gonna say, “Hey, do you want to be the first company we do a newsmagazine show with?” Sure — we’re a media company. Of course we want to do that.
Freston: HBO really gives creatives a lot of free rein. The show that’s gonna be on HBO is Vice’s vision. I think because of the content, [lack of] commercial interruptions and program standards, HBO is a preferred choice for Vice.
Smith: Plus, we can swear.
THR: Tom, as someone who spent time in Afghanistan, you’re not a risk-averse person. But has Vice ever wanted to chase a story that made you concerned for your staff’s safety?
Freston: They’re not seasoned network correspondents — that’s part of their charm. I mean, they’re authentic. They really look like people who are part of their audience, and in a way they sort of are. They’re curious but also to some degree in awe when it’s appropriate.
Smith: Contrary to popular belief, we don’t have a suicide wish — we’re not danger seekers. It just happens that a lot of the best stories happen to be in dangerous countries. We have said no. I mean, we were supposed to go hang out with pirates in Yemen. I think you pay them to stage a fake kidnapping and they’ll take you around so you can see stuff. Like tour guides with guns. And they ended up getting shot at by guys who were saying, “Hey, come on, you’re ruining our name as kidnappers.” There was a firefight the week we were supposed to go in, so we said, “Well, we won’t go in there.”
Freston: You’re giving kidnappers a bad name — like Bon Jovi.
THR: Do any of these experiences ring familiar from your days at early MTV?
Freston: The fundamental experience of Vice and MTV is kinda the same. Both were present at the birth of different video revolutions. Vice sort of invented itself the same way that people at MTV did. At MTV in the early days, nobody knew anything about television. I think it’s fair to say when Vice decided to go into online video, they didn’t know anything either. Both involved a lot of inexperienced young people with ambition and a good sense for the kind of attitude they want to put on the product.
THR: What lessons from your time at Viacom have you passed on to Vice in its growth stage?
Freston: I’m sort of an outside agitator, really. I’m not in here every day; I’m an adviser. [I tell them] as you grow, be able to have standards that are more suitable for the kind of company you are. Keep a focus on growing organically, keep your voice and don’t look to buy or acquire your way to growth.
Smith: Tom definitely is a wealth of knowledge and has the experience, so I ask him for advice all the time. We recently had a lot of time together in Central America in the jungle, and we talked about everything, including opening a big campus in L.A. We sort of treated [Los Angeles] like a foreign country because Vice has always been so Williamsburg. L.A. was this big question mark for us … but Tom’s like, “You should have a big production hub on the West Coast.” He’s right. It’s actually going to be a campus [overseen by] our creative director, Spike Jonze.
THR: Do you think as the company’s profile becomes bigger, you’re going to have a bigger target on your back?
Smith: Well, that’s why we don’t talk about valuation. I mean, I was with a big writer from one of the biggest newspapers in the world, and he was saying: “You know, now you’re still everyone’s kid brother. But when they see you as direct competition, you should be ready for them to come piss in your eyes.” But, as Tom said, we don’t really have a lot of competition in what we’re doing, especially globally. But will people be mean to us when we’re not the kid brother anymore? Yes.