How Viceland plans to reinvent what a cable network means in the 21st century

Viceland, the new cable network, is a very chill place. Ellen Page saw that personally when she got a job there almost by accident.

"Spike's a really good friend of mine, and I was literally crashing at his place in New York right before starting a movie," the 29-year-old star of "Juno" and "Inception" said, referring to Spike Jonze, director of such millennial touchstones as "Where the Wild Things Are" and "Her."

"And he said, 'Oh, we're looking to launch a TV network, so if you have any TV ideas, let me know," she added. Within a couple of days she texted a pitch to Jonze, who's in charge of programming for the network. Meetings were taken. A few days after that, Page, who came out as gay in 2014, was on board to cohost a new series.

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"Gaycation," a reality travelogue about LGBT people all over the world, is one of the inaugural offerings from Viceland, the network that digital journalism pioneer Vice and cable giant A&E launched on Monday.

"We just went for it," Page said of "Gaycation."

That's how they roll at Viceland, which hopes to spread the vaunted Vice brand -- edgy, irreverent, millennial-skewing -- across an entire cable network, beamed at launch to 70 million U.S. cable subscribers (it's broadcast on the channel formerly occupied by H2, a spinoff of the History network).

Anyone born after 1980 is probably already well aware of Vice, whose co-founder Shane Smith is a new-media mogul with an estimated net worth well in excess of $1 billion. From its humble origins as a Montreal alternative magazine started in 1994, the company's websites and phone apps, such as the music app Noisey, have become leading purveyors of news and information aimed at young adults (headquarters is now New York). Vice covers topics such as climate change and indie rock as aggressively as more traditional news outlets report on national politics and corporate moves. And it does so without the detachment often found in mainstream journalism. The Vice voice is direct, intimate, relatable.

TV viewers have already gotten a taste of Vice via a half-hour newsmagazine on HBO. There was also a partnership (since defunct) with CNN.com. There was an earlier stab at an online network funded by MTV and also overseen by Jonze. But the new network is the most ambitious undertaking yet. The way Jonze describes it, Viceland is more like a really fun sandbox than a conventional cable network launch.

"I'm trying to make a place where creative people can come and invite them to play with this thing, this TV channel," Jonze said by phone. "If we can have a conversation with people and enable conversations between creative people and people watching it, I think that's interesting."

Viceland is listening

That interactive exchange with viewers already integral to online media was fostered from the start. Before the launch, Viceland producers invited fans to leave voicemails about any topic they wished, and excerpts from those messages were broadcast for the first 13 hours the channel went live. People talked about politics, media, their personal struggles; one woman detailed how her life spiraled down after she became disabled. The message is clear: People are talking, and Viceland is listening.

"We don't want any pretensions with this thing," Jonze said.

Of course, pretensions might be the least of Viceland's problems. Critics are already wondering whether the company has picked the wrong medium as its next world to conquer. Cable TV's best days may be behind it. Young people are increasingly abandoning television for smartphones. Vice may be unique online, but its latest incarnation could get lost amid a blur of noisy cable-news shows and reality series.

Then there's the subtler problem of identity. Can Viceland remain true to its parent company's startup roots? When does a new spring bubbling up from the ground become part of the mainstream?

Thomas Morton began interning at Vice in 2004, not long after graduating from New York University. He now hosts the off-the-wall travel show "Balls Deep" on Viceland.

"I started working there when it was a magazine with a staff of, like, 10, and also a record label that specialized in British hip-hop," Morton said of Vice. The growth has been slow but inexorable. "There definitely comes a point," Morton added, "where you look around and you're like, 'Where did these 300 other people come from?'"

Tokyo bound

"Gaycation" lays its cards on the table straight away. Page and her cohost, Ian Daniel, travel in the premiere episode to Tokyo, where they visit gay clubs in the Shinjuku Ni-chome district, exploring the clash between traditional Japanese decorum and the city's sometimes raucous nightlife. They interview a barkeep who proudly sells rubber molds of his own mouth as a sex toy.

"I loved that he celebrated his talent and that 20,000 have bought one," Page said. "I have one myself at home right now."

It's a safe bet that Ni-chome clubs don't see a lot of Oscar-nominated actresses swanning through with camera crews in tow, but Page isn't putting on any airs. She dresses like a grad student, almost incognito beneath a black beanie and big eyeglasses. And true to the Vice aesthetic, she keeps it real for viewers, frequently relating larger gay issues to her own experience as a newly out woman.

"It's totally different from acting," Page said of her hosting duties. "Even when we were getting ready to go [start filming] I was like, 'Wait, what am I doing?' I've never done something like this before or existed as myself in front of the camera. … I don't really think of it from the perspective necessarily of journalism; more truly it's just, yeah, a human who's going to talk to people and meet people."

In one of the most uncomfortable moments, Page and Daniel sit in as a young Japanese man comes out to his mother. Upon hearing the news, the woman looks as if she is about to burst into tears, then apologizes and flees the room.

That type of raw, personal approach is a hallmark of Viceland's initial offerings. In "Weediquette" — a longer version of a Vice Web series — Krishna Andavolu explores the dimensions of marijuana culture as American society grows more accepting of the drug's use, medicinally and casually. Andavolu is seen phoning his slightly scandalized mother to tell her about his latest adventure in weed culture. He freely and easily talks about his own pot consumption. But the host is aware of the need to strike a balance.

"We're really trying to have a lot of integrity in this show, journalistically speaking, because it's such a hot-topic issue and you [can] go too far in advocating for this stuff," Andavolu said.

Overseeing all this is Jonze, who operates not as a typical TV executive bestowing notes but rather as a friendly fellow artist.

"He's got a really graceful bedside manner," Morton said of Jonze. "He's good at pointing out the things that he thinks you're good at. He's not in the game of giving intensive micro-managerial notes. It's broad-picture stuff."

Page said it was Jonze's idea that she would have a co-host, partly for the security and also for an on-screen dynamic. "He can curate ideas and make you feel motivated," she said, "make you feel like it's possible."

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Finding its audience

Viceland may need to cultivate that sense of possibility, because the network is facing a tough media environment.

A&E Networks bought a 10% stake in Vice in 2014 for a reported $250 million (Time Warner, the parent of HBO, had failed in an earlier bid to acquire a stake in the company). That deal valued Vice at $2.5 billion, more than the New York Times Co.'s market capitalization. It also paved the way for Vice to take over the underperforming H2. (A subsequent investment from the Walt Disney Co., a co-owner of A&E, in late 2015 valued Vice at more than $4 billion.)

But some observers are puzzled by the prospect of a new-media company lurching back to old media.

The millennials the channel is aiming for already have plenty of viewing options on YouTube and elsewhere.

"The main challenge for Viceland is that the target audience just doesn't watch television," said Jeffrey McCall, a media studies professor at DePauw University. "And it's even less likely that whatever television they watch is through a paid cable package."

McCall predicted ratings so low they won't even be measured by Nielsen. "Even fringe channels, which this will be, have to pay the bills at some point," he said.

But given Vice's track record, it might be wise not to underestimate the company.

Jonze wants to seize the opportunity to reinvent what a network means in the 21st century.

"The point … was not just make a bunch of different shows but make the whole channel be the thing that we're creating," he said. "The whole thing is one living organism.

"We are really looking at the whole thing as a laboratory."

scott.collins@latimes.com

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 09, 2016, in the Arts + Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Viceland offers edgy approach - New cable network plans to woo cord-cutting millennials" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe

UPDATE

March 4, 12:29 a.m.: This article has been updated with details in Disney's investment in Vice in late 2015.

This article was originally published on March 3 at 7 a.m.

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