media issues

'Vice' founder Shane Smith’s message to the media: Give the kids what they want – or die

The digital conqueror took to the stage in Edinburgh with some harsh words for the TV industry.

There will be blood. So said Shane Smith, chief of digital empire Vice Media, and one of its co-founders, at the keynote MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival.

Dubbed “the barbarian at the gate” the day before in the Wall Street Journal, Smith warned, nay relished, the prospect of “a veritable fucking bloodbath” in the year ahead as he predicted old media and new media would take part in a frenzy of consolidation and merger. Far from any cerebral analysis on the future of the media, it felt like watching a trailer for Game of Thrones.

He’d tweeted before the speech:

That may have promised more than the Canadian journalist turned entrepreneur delivered, but his audience of TV executives – baby boomers as opposed to millennials – had to suck it up. He gave them rap; riffs on booze and hallucinogens; attempts at a Scottish accent (not bad); and much profanity as he veered off on various tangents before getting to his point: the kids are all right. They are the future. Change is good.

Smith is the guru with an “in” to Generation Y, the most sought-after demographic for media and advertisers. He is the man behind the Vice site and various other hip digital destinations, plus the Viceland TV channel, a news operation, a movie arm and book and music publishing enterprises. Current value: $4.5 billion (£3.4 billion).

This has been built on the back of growing acclaim. Vice won two Peabody awards last year for a global scoop with the first inside coverage of ISIS and a documentary series about a hard-knocks school in Chicago. It also drew attention for a ground-breaking video about Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the UK (see below). Next week, Vice is up for three Emmys for Smith’s documentary on global warming, Gloria Steinem’s Women series and Spike Jonze’s Gaycation.

Big media has been scrabbling to get onboard. Disney has invested $400m in the last year and now owns 18% of the operation. And while Smith retains overall control through supervoting shares, he has been courted by other big boys – Fox has 5%, there were investment talks with Time Warner, and a while back he jilted Viacom, owner of the likes of MTV and Paramount.

Smith pointed to the coming bloodbath among these giants as a symptom of the change sweeping through the media:

The Hollywood Reporter last week was predicting Fox will bid for Time Warner and takeover CNN and become the largest news organisation. Time Warner will bid for Viacom as they don’t want Fox to take them over. Meanwhile Apple will bid for Time Warner and Tim Cook will also buy Netflix.

On Viacom, with whom Vice’s marriage in the 2000s was not happy, he cackled: “Viacom is imploding … a Shakespearean decline”.

Play

Advertising RIP?

Smith was more sombre on new media, saying much of it would go to the wall. Why?

The death of the 30 second commercial, dude. All the agencies know it. The basic funding for content is commercially dysfunctional. Platforms have to change their ad base. It’s the biggest single shift in new media history …

Ad blocking on mobile is now 60% and [falling traditional TV ratings] and Netflix and consumption on demand is really knocking the shit out of the traditional ad model.

He said Vice had stayed ahead of the game with its in-house ad agency, which produces “branded” content for marketers – “native advertising”, as he called it. There was much uncomfortable shuffling in seats as digital independents in the UK rely on outsourcing their ad sales to consultancies.

But in-house is Vice’s motto and it’s not so much content is king as content is key:

With fewer content sites and mainstream media buying up big scale and another economic downturn around the corner, everyone is confused.

Play

Content, stupid

He turned to how mainstream media news coverage had failed Gen Y, giving the example of CNN’s collusion with Trump in the US elections. There was a sharper intake of breath as he threw down the gauntlet to the audience:

The baby boomers’ stranglehold is broken. Let’s break the rules. Open shit up. The mainstream media is so closed to young people. Hand it over to the kids. It’s about language, tonality. You can’t fake this. Gen Y is the smartest, savviest, most sophisticated and educated one ever. They have an in-built bullshit detector, so don’t bullshit.

The problem is will you give $10m to a kid straight out of school. Mainstream media don’t do that. We do. A 23-year-old might run off to Mexico City with my production budget but most cases we get gold.

But when and how did Vice see the light?

When we stopped being the hipster’s bible … The idea young people were not interested in news is bullshit. They care. We changed our brand. Our business grew, our audience exploded, we made more money and more content …

Our research showed what was important to young people – music, environment, civil rights, inequality, social justice, gender equality and LGBT rights.

Don’t be derivative, was his message – American Idol, The X Factor, home improvement shows … forget about it. Gen Y is now taking over: culturally, socially and economically.

Smith said producing content the kids wanted to consume was a virtuous circle – make the right content, your audience grows, awards roll in and you make more money to make more content, more licensing, more brands, more consumer relationships and more money. With the scale of Vice’s success in recent years, it certainly feels like he has a point. Will the old guard be able to do something similar? Their investment in Vice suggests they are far from optimistic.

Simon Pia, Lecturer in Journalism, Edinburgh Napier University .

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.