The Shock of the New – How VBS.TV put terrestrial television on the back foot

TelevisionVBS.TV is the online broadcasting arm of Vice magazine.  It’s hit the headlines in recent times – firstly for attracting investment from MTV, secondly for having its wildly left-field documentaries snapped up for broadcast on CNN, and lastly for securing the services of Spike Jonze as Creative Director.


Chances are, neither VBS.TV or Vice mean anything to you – but these niche media brands and buzzwords signify plenty to the united legion of hipsters that populate cities across the globe.  But don’t worry about that, Steven D Wright our TV producer guinea pig hadn’t heard of VBS either. 


We decided to set up a litmus test to see if VBS.TV lived up to its collective hype. The premise is simple enough:  pin one of British TV’s most celebrated factual TV producers down and confront him with The Future…


Vice has grown from a fanzine to an international multimedia concern – the magazine has nearly a million readers across the globe, and VBS.TV gets in excess of 2 million hits per month, according to The Guardian newspaper.  It’s niche, but collectively it adds up to quite a large hill of beans.


“Vice has always been made available for free, and advertiser interest has made us grow." says Vice's European chief executive Andrew Creighton.  “VBS viewers don’t fit typical 25-34 ABC campaign models.  These are individuals and we have those individuals on a group level in their millions.”


He predicts that annual viewing figures for VBS.TV will surpass 50 million a year.  Is that an empty boast?  Well, The Vice organisation already turns over $20 million a year, and does so almost entirely free from the mainstream, so dismiss their influence at your peril. 


The magazine isn’t stocked in newsagents, and supply to retailers is strictly controlled.  Regardless, this elusive (maybe even exclusive) publication transposes into 19 issues worldwide and a readership of over 900,000 in 22 countries, according to figures from the Independent newspaper.


So, exactly who is its audience?  Wikipedia describes hipsters as: ‘recently-settled young urban middle class adults and older teenagers with interests in non-mainstream fashion and culture particularly alternative music, independent film, magazines such as Vice and websites like Pitchfork Media.’  In short – trendy types earning money that have hitherto resisted all the urges of mainstream marketing beside iPhones. 


In the early 1990s, Steven D Wright was himself at the forefront of youth culture.  He wrote for The Face magazine before moving into television as a researcher on The Word.  And yes, he owns an iPhone.


Ironically, neither of the franchises Wright cut his teeth on means anything to today’s under-30s.  But prior to the first boom The Face was the last word in cool (it was laid to rest in 2004), while The Word ignited British television in the early 1990s, snatching 49% of the audience share on its edgy Friday night slot. 


The show’s production staff found themselves in demand, to the point where Variety magazine named Steven D Wright recently as one of the 25 most powerful people in British television.  A trusted barometer of what’s happening in TV, Wright has landed close to a £75 million worth of programming during his career. 


The fact that he hasn’t heard of VBS.TV isn’t really indicative of whether he’s out of date or not, he argues:

“The problem is there’s so much TV now.  It’s very difficult to know what’s on, what’s happening, what’s going on.  It’s very easy to miss.” 


And yet here he is, practically choking with envy while watching a documentary that’s been shot on a shoestring and shown over the internet on VBS.TV.  

…Which has to be interpreted as a positive result for our experiment.
“At first I thought it was only going to be five minutes long, when I realised it was 34 minutes – I though ‘oh, fucking hell!’.  But I’ve got nothing but praise for it,” he enthuses.  “The quality is there; the journalism is there; the mix of characters was very interesting; the points were there.  I was quite jealous watching it.

“Straightaway as soon as I see it I’m thinking ‘how much did that cost?’” 


He runs through a quick calculation of cameramen, researchers, post-production and comes back with a figure.  “Normally you’re talking anything from £80-£150,000.  But it’s not really about cost.  It’s real journalism; it’s real stories.  It’s frightening for someone like me who’s trying to make terrestrial TV.”


Vice has grown from a fanzine to an international multimedia concern – the magazine has nearly a million readers across the globe, and VBS.TV gets in excess of 2 million hits per month.

Another affirmative…


VBS operates in a very simple manner – and on an extremely modest budget.  A crew of three – producer, cameraman and host are despatched to somewhere dangerous, squalid, or unwelcoming – often all three, immersing themselves in whatever’s going on around them.  Ordinarily, they seek out the sort of situations seasoned correspondents are conditioned to avoid then let their opinions run free.


Creighton explains the high concept:  “It’s a Jackass meets 60 Minutes approach that's all about tricking people into learning stuff – politics, culture, journalism – through entertainment, and the great thing is it's 100% advertiser-funded.”


For example: Vice co-founder Shane Smith smuggled himself across the border into North Korea to shoot an eye-popping travel piece cavorting with indoctrinated locals and risking long-term incarceration in the process.  Similarly, VBS correspondents reported back from war-torn Liberia having used Joshua Blahyi, aka General Butt Naked – self-confessed baby-eater and mass murderer – as their guide. 


They’ve shopped for dirty bombs in Bulgaria, hunted mutant wild boars in Chernobyl, and shadowed Iraq’s only Heavy Metal band around the badlands of Baghdad.  Interviews with edgy modern professionals like skateboarder artists and existential pornstars are also a mainstay on VBS.TV.  The tone is always imbued with an irreverence readers of Vice magazine recognise and revere. 


Wright opted to review Blackpool: Vegas of the North, part of VBS’ Rule Britannia series of documentaries tracking the highs and lows of modern life in the UK.  This warts-and-all portrait of a beleaguered seaside resort in Lancashire is almost entirely characterised by lows.


He singles out the vignette of a Mother, son, and mentally retarded daughter who live in a hideously squalid flat above the small shop they hope will provide an income.  On the counter several sorry-looking second-hand items are displayed.  The woman admits she’s yet to sell something since moving to Blackpool six weeks previously.


Wright explodes with expletives that Gordon Ramsey would recoil from.


“It’s powerful and quite depressing,” he admits. “Obviously, I’ve been to Blackpool – I’ve made documentaries in Blackpool, but it taught me something.  That’s the key to a good documentary.”


Stylistically, he says the documentary is “almost old fashioned.  There’s no interruptions, no ad breaks, no filter.  It’s purist documentary making which doesn’t exist on TV anymore.”


But why not?  The audience is clearly there  …Or, perhaps they’ve moved on?  Wright readily acknowledges that there’s a whole generation who are moving away from TV, but he’s confident that VBS.TV won’t have him fighting to save his livelihood just yet:

“TV is the most powerful invention in the world; it’s never going to go under.  But the internet is the second most powerful invention.


“The people who literally do live online – like the girl who fell in a storm drain who posted to her friend on Facebook instead of calling the police – that’s where TV will lose.  That mentality is definitely a threat.”


Unfortunately, for Wright the future isn’t in his hands.  While TV continues along its route of bloated populism, Creighton abides by his business model which is akin to a manifesto.


“The media has homogenised around one news agenda and a merry-go-round of the same celebrities,” says Creighton.  “Our audience doesn’t care about quality production values; they just care if it’s relevant to them.


“We know there’s an alienated youth subculture into different entertainment and information. This audience isn’t small. It’s global and it’s saying no to mainstream media.  The future isn’t online but on every platform where people want to watch us.”


TV should be watching its back…