A Guerrilla Video Site Meets MTV
Vice magazine has built a small media empire out of a raw, ironic sensibility, risqué photographs and a willingness to deal in taboo subjects.
On VBS.tv, the video Web site the company runs, viewers can find short videos about independent music, extreme sports and, of course, some nudity. But there are also a surprising number of ambitious news reports, like an interview with Hezbollah’s self-proclaimed “mayor of Beirut,” investigations of environmental abuse, and a story about a Colombian date-rape drug.
What’s even more surprising is the company that finances most of these projects: Viacom.
Late last year, the Viacom-owned MTV Networks Music and Logo Group made a deal to start VBS, with financing from MTV and content from Vice, which also sells ads.
“They gave me a pitch of ’60 Minutes’-meets-‘Jackass,’” said Jeff Yapp, the executive vice president for program enterprises for the MTV Networks music group.
In return for its investment — which is not mentioned on the VBS site — MTV gets a low-cost laboratory in which to experiment with Internet video programming as it struggles to adjust to a world where online content is chipping away at television’s dominance.
MTV virtually owned youth culture on television a decade ago but has not translated that success online. Viacom missed its chance to buy MySpace, a failure that many believe cost Tom Freston, the company’s former chief executive, his job.
“MTV’s online distribution strategy has been one of confusion,” said Michael Wolf, a research director at ABI Research. “I think they could use a content partner if it helps them bring in a fresh perspective.”
Major media companies like Viacom have been looking to smaller firms like Vice to lead them through the digital wilderness. But this deal will also give MTV Networks a source of new television programming, since it has the rights to show VBS content on any of its channels worldwide. MTV Latin America has already shown four half-hour programs assembled from VBS content, and the first United States VBS special will appear Saturday on MTV2. More could follow.
“We were at this place in time when all the great creative energy was around music videos,” said Van Toffler, president of the MTV Networks music group. “Now you see all that energy happening again.”
VBS is set up as a separate venture, although neither Vice nor MTV Networks would discuss the exact terms of the deal. The two companies also work together on several other projects.
Vice did some work on the marketing of the MTV Networks video game Rock Band and consulted on a virtual world project the company is working on. Vice also has a publishing deal with MTV Books, under which it has released two titles; a third, “The Vice Photo Book,” which collects images from the magazine’s history, is due out Dec. 1.
Vice was started in Montreal in 1994 by Shane Smith, Suroosh Alvi and Gavin McInnes when all three were on welfare, they have said. During the late ’90s, the company was bought by Richard Szalwinski, a Canadian software millionaire who made big plans for expansion and moved the operation to New York.
The magazine quickly became known for politically incorrect, sometimes racially charged, humor and photographs from Terry Richardson and Ryan McGinley. The company opened several retail stores that sold the kind of street fashion the magazine advertised.
As the dot-com boom ended, however, “everything fell by the wayside,” Mr. Smith said. In 2000, the three founders bought the company back, closed the stores and focused on the media business. The company now controls 13 foreign editions of the magazine, published with partners around the world, and runs an independent record label.
As Vice added international editions, the perspective of the founders began to change.
“The world is much bigger than the Lower East Side and the East Village,” Mr. Alvi said. So the magazine started to cover more serious issues, usually in its own inimitable style. One recent issue about Iraq, written mostly by people there, portrayed daily life in that country; in true Vice fashion it included an interview with an Iraqi prostitute in Syria.
The deal with MTV gives Vice the resources to apply its D.I.Y. approach in a new medium, and it has enlisted Spike Jonze, the film director, as VBS creative director. “I don’t care if it’s for Internet or TV or film or mobile phones, I want to create the best content,” Mr. Smith said.
Although VBS shoots in standard-definition video, so its footage can be used on television, its programming owes little to the medium’s conventions. It sends out correspondents in teams of three — a producer, a cameraman and a host who expresses his opinion freely. There are no lights or makeup.
“Our aesthetic is raw,” said Bernardo Loyola, an editor at VBS. “If it’s raggedy, if they’re hung over, it’s part of the shoot.”
At least one VBS series has already worked out better than MTV Networks might have hoped. Mr. Loyola and Monica Hampton, whom VBS hired from the film industry, edited footage Mr. Alvi and his friends shot in Iraq into “Heavy Metal in Baghdad,” a documentary about an Iraqi hard rock band that loses its practice space to an explosion and goes to Syria as refugees. In September, the movie received positive reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival, and Mr. Alvi said that a distribution deal would be announced shortly.
“We made a feature-length documentary by accident,” said Mr. Alvi, who appeared in the film. “These are the people who are getting affected by this war.”
VBS is also beginning to build an audience online. In August, the site had 184,000 unique viewers from the United States, according to the Internet traffic monitor ComScore; the company says the actual number is much higher.
That’s a smaller audience than some other online video sites; collegehumor.com had 1.3 million viewers in the same month. But MTV has yet to put its promotional muscle behind VBS. Although such numbers are small compared with television, the site’s perspective seems to intrigue advertisers, and it already has attracted record companies and fashion labels.
“This is a singular vision. It’s not cats playing with yarn,” said Todd Krieger, a senior vice president at Denuo, a division of the advertising giant Publicis Group. “What MTV is getting out of it is a relationship with people who have a following, and they have a certain style.”
That style may have mellowed with age. Mr. McInnes, who had become known for making racially charged remarks, perhaps as pranks, fell out of day-to-day involvement with the company. He still writes the withering fashion dos-and-don’ts section that has become a key part of the magazine.
Dana Lavoie editing video for the VBS.tv program “Hi Shredability.”
Vice is still owned by the founders and several employees, and Mr. Smith said that it was profitable, although he acknowledged exaggerating the company’s success in the past. “After we bought the company I’d bang the drum and say how great we were doing,” he said. “But we’ve always had to make money. It’s not like we could go to the bank and get money — they’d look at us and run away.”