A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Shane Smith knows exactly what you think of his plan to conquer cable TV — and he doesn’t care.
The Vice founder and CEO is seated at his $4.2 billion digital-media company’s Venice outpost in mid-January, outlining for the first time his ambitious plan to launch a millennial-minded network, Viceland, on Feb. 29. Though in his telling, it’s less about the cable play than it is the doors (and advertising dollars) the opportunity will unlock, all part of Smith’s larger plan to become “the biggest f—ing media company in the world.”
With Viceland’s co-president Spike Jonze, a close Smith pal and a longtime Vice partner, seated beside him, he reveals all the ways in which Viceland will feel like nothing else on TV. Nearly all of the shows are being made in-house, he stresses, and the viewer will be able to enjoy such things as themed days (think “Stoner Sundays”) and significantly fewer 30-second ads.
“Everybody talks about disruption until you actually f—ing disrupt something and then everybody freaks the f— out,” Smith says with the kind of bravado for which he’s become well known. “And we’re going come along and we’re going disrupt everything, and everyone’s going say I’m f—ing the Devil himself. And then 12 months from now we’ll be on the cover of Time magazine as the guys who brought millennials back to TV.”
Here is an edited version of our hour-and-a-half conversation, during which Smith drops 52 F-bombs and suggests he can’t be “Brian Williams-ed” out of this job.
You’re targeting a demographic that increasingly doesn’t watch TV. Why do this?
SMITH Because before we leave the industry, we want to be responsible for the greatest media explosion blowout bankruptcy in history. (Laughs.)
Seriously, that’s the goal?
SMITH That’d be cool, right? What’s funny is in the press, it’s always been, “Shane Smith wants a TV network.” No, I don’t. Look, mobile to me is the frontier because if you ever go around the world and you see most of the kids in our offices, they don’t even have laptops. Everyone talks about cord-cutters of TV. They don’t have f—ing computers, they have f—ing phones!
But advertisers want to be on TV?
SMITH Yeah, 75 percent of the world’s advertising budget is still on television. Now, that will move to online, and guess what? I’m in online. And that’ll move to mobile. I’m in mobile. But why don’t I get that 75 percent while all these other guys who don’t know what the f— they’re doing are getting it.
And thus the desire to have a network?
SMITH The barriers of entry were cost?prohibitive before because they didn’t let the young punk kid say, “I’d like to buy a billion?dollar network please.” But now, because there is this disruption and people are looking for us to be the future, we can form partnerships to get one of these networks. And then that network becomes a content creation engine that goes into all these different screens and brings advertisers, because advertisers still have money tied up in TV. Why? Because you don’t get fired for putting commercials on TV. Our biggest online clients said, “F—, we’d give you a shitpile of money if you were in TV.” And we also looked at that and we said we can offset the purchase of many of these networks around the world with our new advertising budgets that these guys will give us. So, if you can come up with new ways to monetize, then you don’t have to be as focused on ratings. Look at Netflix. Netflix makes a shitpile of f—ing money, and they don’t talk about ratings. Why? Because they have a different business model. Well, we have a different business model.
So, if three months from now only a few hundred thousand people are watching the shows on the network, you’re not going to be concerned?
JONZE I’d be upset if that’s all we delivered to them. But you’re just talking about cable, and that’s not the only place where people will see it. It goes everywhere.
But it’s not as easy to monetize the eyeballs that watch it elsewhere. This is the conundrum in the TV business: You need to be where your viewers are, but you haven’t figured out how to fully monetize those eyeballs anywhere but TV.
SMITH An NBC is not set up to make money online; we are. What I mean by that is if you’re trying to make money off spots and dots on TV and/or online, you won’t. You have to come up with alternative ways of making money.
You have all of these legacy media investors who are running their business with that NBC mentality …
SMITH Well, why do you think they invested in us?
They think you’re doing voodoo magic?
SMITH No, the business press thinks we’re doing voodoo magic. (Laughs.) They’re all, “Shane is f—ing P.T. Barnum.” Fox, Time Warner, Disney, they’re not stupid. They’re smart people. You think that I could hoodwink Bob Iger, Jeff Bewkes and Rupert Murdoch? I’ll tell you what they see in us, and I’d do the exact same f—ing thing if there was anybody out there for mobile: We’re a hedge. Because they’ve got their business, and those businesses have thrown off a lot of cash. But Bob Iger probably realizes that his business, the biggest media company in the world, is going to go into a f—ing vortex and he needs to at least have some pathfinder saying, “Hey, Bob, I figured this out over here.” They all do, quite frankly. And at least we’re f—ing trying. Everyone [else] is galvanized into inactivity. They’re like, “Yep, we’re f—ed, we’re totally f—ed. Should we try anything different? No, f—, no, no, don’t unbundle.” But unless you try f—ing something, you’re not going to learn anything. So, when we came to them with our plans and said, “Here’s how we’re going do it and here’s what we need,” they all salivated because they’re like, “F—, I’d do that with my company if I could, but I can’t.”
So you became the guinea pig?
SMITH Yeah, let Vice go fall down, scrape their knees. You don’t get learnings from cashing checks; you get learnings from f—ing making a mistake. So we said, “You give us the money and the assets and whatever, and we’ll go out there and be this lab. Try this new shit. Do this stuff. Some of it’ll work. Some of it won’t.” The successes will be exponentially bigger than they are really because people are looking to see if we can bring millennials back or if mobile can actually work. If we have a minor success, it’s going be, “Holy f—, throw cash at that motherf—er.” So, why wouldn’t we do that? And by the way, the only way to become the biggest media company in the world is by taking their money and coming up with the new algorithm. Because if I can come up with the new algorithm, then I win.
There are plenty who are predicting this network will be a replay of Al Gore’s Current TV, which had lots of hype, then fell flat. Thoughts?
SMITH Great. Because if they prophesize my doom and then I kick ass and I’m like (flashes middle finger). As the late, great [New York Times columnist] David Carr used to say, “It’s fighting season.” Look, everybody talks about disruption until you actually f—ing disrupt something, and then everybody freaks the f— out. And we’re going to come along and we’re going to disrupt everything, and everyone’s going to say I’m the f—ing devil himself. And then 12 months from now we’ll be on the cover of Time magazine as the guys who brought millennials back to TV. That’s how it f—ing works.
I’m trying to imagine Bob Iger, whose Disney co-owns A+E, watching Viceland show F—, That’s Delicious. A Vice channel partially half-owned by squeaky clean Disney almost seems like a punch line …
SMITH Oh, [the big media companies are all] f—ing conservative because they’re all huge and there’s so much at stake. But if you have a CEO that is going to get a ticker-tape parade as the best media CEO in history, he’s got more leeway to say, “I’m going to experiment.” I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, but Bob loves the content.
If you look around the landscape, who are you drawing inspiration from for Viceland?
SMITH No one. And the reason why I am so unequivocal about that is that we’re trying not to get people from TV. We want this to be different than TV. We want the programming to be different, we want the monetization to be different, and we want the look and feel to be different. One of the things we noticed about other networks is that they buy one show from one production company and another from another production company, so there’s no cohesive flow to everything. With Viceland, we want everything to feel the same.
This is a 24-hour network. We’ve heard about your primetime originals. Now, what happens at 3 p.m.? Or 9 a.m.?
JONZE One thing is we have this incredible library from doing content now for 10 years online, and we’re trying to clear all of that stuff. It’s mostly music rights.
SMITH What happened that opened our eyes to this was that we did a deal in Greece because we have an office and a production team over there. They would just do best-of’s from all our stuff around the world. People don’t realize that there’s a lot of stuff from Vice in Germany or Brazil or China. They packaged them in a really smart way, and Vice went from being an online thing to a block to a network there. Now, 15 percent of media consumption in Greece is Vice. Then they did it in Serbia, and now we’re 25 percent of the market in Serbia and this. We’re like, “What the f— is going on?” So we came up with a way of doing a digital daytime where we get the best-of’s here, but we repackage them and curate them. And then we’re going to have some freaky stuff in there.
SMITH I travel around the world a lot and you get insomnia. So, you’ll be in Iran and on the talk shows there will be, like, three generals with epaulets and turbans having a heated discussion. It’s amazing, so we’re like, “Why don’t we put that up with no translation?” And what we were thinking is that we might have an app where there’s no translation on the TV, but you can have it [on the app]. There are just all kinds of crazy, crazy shows.
So you’ll actually license things like this?
SMITH Yeah, we’re licensing a bunch of shows that we’re putting up there just for fun. We just think it’s funny. We have our primetime block, which we’ll repeat at various times the next day during the day. And then we have the hangover Saturdays and stoner Sundays.
JONZE So if you’re hung over, we’ll be running stuff that’s easy on your mind. It could be F—, That’s Delicious, or it could be a movie.
What else will you acquire?
SMITH We started off saying we wouldn’t license anything. And then I think everyone’s like, “I just saw this f—ing awesome doc from 10 years ago.” So, we’ve started looking at movies, mostly docs, because we love great historical docs and they’re underrepresented. Wrapping them in and having context is important. So, for example, there are a lot of docs on civil rights that completely mirror LGBT issues today, and we like to juxtapose those things. Not to be too businessy, but those docs are very cheap and can be very impactful because they show our history. So we’ve been looking at curating a whole doc series that fits in with what we do.
And TV shows, too?
SMITH Yeah, I don’t want to give all my secrets away, but there all kinds of funny, overlooked TV shows that would be really stoner or hung-over TV shows like [Second City TV] from Canada. We don’t want to curate too much stuff. But in a package, we can have some of our stuff, some digital daytime stuff and some curated stuff. It can be hangover cures from online — like, how to cook a perfect cheeseburger — and then a funny Young Ones or whatever the hell it is. Everyone’s hung over on Saturdays, and it’s such a great day to just lie on the couch and watch TV, so we were like, “Why aren’t we programming for that?”
Shane, how much will you appear on Viceland?
SMITH It depends. I’m not an actor. I’ll definitely do promo stuff, but I have a show [on HBO], which takes a lot of my time. And it’ll take up more because I’m going be working on the HBO daily news show, too. I’ve been offered these tremendous opportunities and access to once-in-a-lifetime shoots that I can’t say no to. So that’s going to tie me up.
JONZE We grab him when we can, but we understand he has two shows and a company to run.
The executives at HBO were caught off-guard by the network news. What was the fallout?
SMITH Well, there probably would have been worse fallout if … I mean, there was no disingenuous action. We had told them all along that we wanted to own our content platforms and do a network. I think they just said, “Whatever, Shane.” Everyone rolls their eyes till I do it.
JONZE I’ve known Shane for around 15 years, and for the first 10, I’d give him shit about it. He’d be like, “Everyone’s freaking out because we’re going to do this and do that,” and I’d be like, “Yeah, OK.” And then about five years ago, I was like, “I think I have to stop giving Shane shit because a lot of things he’s been talking about have actually happened.”
So, HBO underestimated you?
SMITH Look, I love HBO. HBO is the gold standard, and they think so, too. My personal point of view is, as the Vice brand grows and our audience grows and our stature grows, having a lock on perhaps the most valuable part of that business is priceless. And maybe because we had been babies together with HBO, they wanted it to be exclusive. But if it happened to me and Action [Bronson] came to me and said, “By the way, I’m doing another cooking show,” I wouldn’t be stoked about that. But at the end of the day, I still have Action and he’s just getting bigger. So, we’re really proud of the work that we do for HBO. I’m really proud of it. It allows me a little bit of distance from the brand to do what I’m interested in. I’m Gen X, and as I get older, I’m interested in the environment and politics and social change. Vice is still a millennial brand.
It’s my understanding that HBO said, “We get all things news and the other network can be lifestyle,” and you agreed. Do I have that right?
SMITH Well, you don’t get to be partners with all the big media companies by being an asshole. I realize that that’s what they want and it’s what I want, so that’s a good partnership.
Looking ahead, what will success look like?
SMITH Revolutionizing media as we know it.
SMITH That we’re just like everybody else, that we’re derivative.
MTV News has hired a handful of former Grantland writers and is said to be trying to create a Vice of its own.
SMITH Go ahead, have at it!
So that’s not a concern?
SMITH (Nods head and laughs.) You want to know why? Because they’re going to spend a lot of money and a lot of resources to realize they can’t do it. No one is going to watch their B.S. And then, guess what? You just lost another year and I gained one.
How do you avoid being out-Viced by a newcomer?
SMITH MTV had a 30?year run before they imploded. Hopefully we have a 30?year run and then some kid will come along and then it’ll be holograms. I’m pretty cognizant of what’s in my rearview mirror, and right now there’s not a lot in the rearview mirror.
What about BuzzFeed?
SMITH I’m friends with Jonah [Peretti], and BuzzFeed is great at what it does, but it’s a completely different business. Everyone loves to compare us, and at some point we probably should just link up and kick everyone’s ass.
You recently moved out to Los Angeles. What’s the most Hollywood thing about your life now?
SMITH My house [a $23 million mansion in Santa Monica]. When you move from New York, you want palm trees and pools. We’re like the Beverly Hillbillies. You come out here, and you’re like, “I want it all, man. I want the whole experience.” And I’m surprised at how much I love it. I’m already into wheatgrass enemas and all that shit.
The phrase “hard partying” has been put next to your name in more articles than I can count. Now that you run a $4.2 billion empire with a TV network, are you still going as hard?
SMITH I definitely don’t party as much as I used to, but I’ve already been to the best bar that I’m ever going to go to, seen the best concert I’m ever going to see … Spike and I have been friends for a long time. We used to write scripts together. During that time, he became the No. 1 music video director in the world, the No. 1 commercials director in the world. He built the Jackass franchise and became an Academy Award-winning director. Me? I had a hangover at the end of the decade. So I said, “OK, I’ve got to move over to this side of things.” But I still love booze.
You were just back in Vegas for CES. How much did you win gambling this year?
SMITH I won more than I did last year.
You won more than $1 million?
Will we be hearing about your $300k celebratory dinner on MGM’s earnings call like last year?
SMITH Hopefully not. (Laughs.) No one understands anything. They were like, “Shane Smith spent $300,000 on f—ing dinner.” First, the majority of it gets comped. Second, I either give it to the taxman or I give it to my friends. And they’re like, “Well, why didn’t you give it to the poor?” It doesn’t f—ing work that way! So yeah, I do like to have a good time. And I think I’m like most Americans in saying if I win $1 million in Vegas, I’m going to f—ing bring it. And no one can f—ing Brian Williams me because I own the company. I can do what I f—ing want.