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Is Vice losing its grip?

By Stephen Arnell 08-01-2018

Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.
Francois de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680)

Within the UK media world, there’s been a definite feeling of schadenfreude over recent events at Vice Media, founder Shane Smith’s aggressively hip online/TV millennial-skewing media empire.

At least some of this stems from Smith’s rambling, off-kilter ego-driven speech at the Edinburgh International TV Festival in August 2016, when he lambasted UK broadcasters for their lack of vision for younger audiences and generally created enough ill will to last several lifetimes.

At the festival, Kevin Lygo, ITV’s director of television, commented to applause that, in describing Smith, he was “trying not to use the word odious.”

To some, Smith’s hubristic antics in Edinburgh foreshadowed the problems Vice is currently experiencing.

The recent New York Times reports of sexual harassment in the US offices of Vice Media and the enforced leave of senior executives and departure of others were preceded by Smith’s tone-deaf video ‘State of the Union’ speech to employees in November 2017. This singularly failed to address the situation – just as stories about the culture at the company were first surfacing, post-Weinstein.

Vice’s quaintly phrased ‘non-traditional’ employment contract was seen by many female employees as giving a green light to some of the ‘boys’ club’ behaviour that characterised the organisation.

The ageing hipsters at Vice (Smith is 48) seemed to be living a fantasy more suited to the era of Mad Men (or worse) than the equality culture that they supposedly represented.

There’s a real sense that the chickens are now coming home to roost. In the UK, Vice employees have banded together to protest the unhealthy atmosphere at the company, stating in an open letter to Medium in December that: “It is difficult to see how the company can demonstrate that when it is still being run by people who oversaw habitual sexual harassment and tried to buy the silence of those that tried to speak out.

“For example, Andrew Creighton is still the president of Vice despite the revelation of a large pay-off to a former employee who claimed she was fired after rejecting an intimate relationship with him.” Creighton has since been suspended, along with chief digital officer Mike Germano.

Shane Smith delivers the 2016 EITF MacTaggart

One wonders how long Vice investors Disney (10%) and 21st Century Fox (5%) will tolerate being associated with the increasingly toxic brand, especially if it threatens to tarnish their own standing.

Certainly, Disney’s investment in Vice always appeared somewhat incongruous, especially when Viceland TV’s offering includes shows such as Balls Deep, F**k That’s Delicious and Bong Appétit.

In the UK, linear TV channel Viceland launched with some fanfare in September 2016, but ratings have been negligible, with imported fare such as the animated series Archer and the comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia tending to perform better than commissioned shows such as Gaycation and Weediquette.

Smith is probably hoping that, barring further revelations, the story will burn itself out. But he might be in for a rude awakening, as back in 2003, Smith and since departed co-founder Gavin MacInnes gave hostages to fortune in interviews for The Vice Guide to Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, which may now gain further publicity.

Orgies, drug-taking and other activities were described in graphic detail, although the excuse given by the distinctly unprepossessing pair that they were “willing to sleep with media buyers to keep the magazine alive” doesn’t quite ring true to many.

today's correspondent

Stephen Arnell Broadcast

Stephen Arnell has over 20 years experience in broadcasting, having held senior roles including channel director (ITV3/ITV4) and head of strategy (ITV Digital Channels). Most recently he has been a broadcast consultant for various broadcasters (covering UK, EMEA and ROW), including strategic/scheduling analysis, channel budgets, acquisitions (film, series and factual), strategic/scheduling analysis, commissioning advice and channel launches (UK , Europe and Middle East).

He works with production partners to develop territory-specific and worldwide franchises and projects in TV drama, film and factual programming. Clients include Viacom International, Viewster, GR Media, Trace TV, Discovery, ITN Consulting, Turner Broadcasting and Tiscali.

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