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Vice Media prides itself on ferreting out international and domestic stories not seen in the mainstream media. But the company’s association with HBO — which on June 13 announced a second-season pickup for Vice, the Friday night newsmagazine that counts Bill Maher as an executive producer — has forced the guerrilla news outlet to “up our game,” as CEO Shane Smith put it.
“The stories had to be better,” Smith, who is also an executive producer and a reporter on the show, told The Hollywood Reporter.
Vice produces more than 60 original web series and is distributed across its six digital channels. Together with its YouTube channel — which has more than 2.5 million subscribers — Vice averages over 50 million video views every month. But producing 15-minute segments for a half-hour TV program meant more planning and more attention to stories, sometimes returning a second or third time to a particular location. Before, “we would just go in and immerse ourselves in the story,” said Smith. “This time, we wanted to give people more context. So we learned a lot on what works and what doesn’t for a 15-minute format. The stories had to be better. We couldn’t go to a country and come back with a B-minus.”
In its first season on HBO, Vice has averaged a gross audience of 2.6 million viewers per episode. Production is already under way on the series’ 12-episode second season. In a statement announcing the pickup, HBO programming president Michael Lombardo characterized the program’s storytelling as “fearless,” “irreverent” and “provocative.” The show’s season finale airs Friday, June 14, at 11 p.m. and will focus entirely on Dennis Rodman’s trip to North Korea and his meeting with mercurial leader Kim Jong-un. Rodman and three members of the Harlem Globetrotters traveled to North Korea earlier this year, making Rodman the first American to officially meet Kim. And while the trip made headlines, Rodman also became the target of some derision for visiting with a dictator — and calling him a “friend for life” — while more than 200,000 North Koreans are subjected to forced labor, starvation and torture in labor camps. But Smith countered that the finale is “the best 30 minutes of TV you’re going to see.”
“It shows that North Korea is an absurd place,” he said. “We didn’t go over there to stop a geopolitical crisis [or] get them to disarm their nuclear program. We went over to open up any sort of dialog, which we don’t have. And we did that. And I think that’s a success. We’re not trying to be Jesus Christ and solve the world’s problems. We were trying to film a documentary. And that’s what we did.”
Vice producers extended an invitation to Rodman’s Chicago Bulls teammate Michael Jordan, who has maintained a much lower post-NBA profile. But Jordan was not interested in traveling to North Korea. Asked about the criticism of Rodman in particular — he was grilled upon his return in early March by ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, who gave Rodman a report on the human rights atrocities in North Korea — Smith counters that he “went there to play basketball.”
STORY: HBO’s ‘Vice’ Extends Season; More Time for Dennis Rodman in North Korea
“Asking him about the geopolitical implications of things is kind of a cheap shot. He doesn’t know about those things. It’s not like he makes a secret of who he is. He wears dresses and he goes on Celebrity Rehab,” said Smith, referring to the controversial VH1 program. “We didn’t send him there because he’s a diplomat. We sent him there because he’s a basketball player.”
The finale focuses on the exhibition game in Pyongyang between the Globetrotters — and correspondent Ryan Duffy — and the North Korean National Team, as well as the Globetrotters’ tour of the country. And Smith adds, it focuses on the Korean people. “We see a part of the country that no one’s ever seen.”
As for season two of Vice, Smith is looking to explore the “disintegration in Europe,” China, India and possibly the NSA’s recently revealed PRISM program.
Said Smith: “We’re going to keep doing domestic stories that are going to punch people in the face.”
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