Will Vice's Digital Media Competitors Join It on TV?

Several Digital Publishers, Such as Vox Media, Have TV Plans in Motion

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The Viceland network debuted on cable TV this week.
The Viceland network debuted on cable TV this week. Credit: Vice Media LLC

There are plenty of reasons why Vice Media, with the debut of Viceland on Monday, is the only digital media company that sports its own cable channel.

"The fact is that TV is a hard business," said Marty Moe, president of Vox Media. "It's not a layup for anybody, and in particular, for digital-native companies that have never done TV before."

Vox also wants to be on TV, but in the right way, and for the right reasons.

"We bring the ability to create a new generation of television programming for a new generation of digital television consumers," he said. "What we don't think is that taking our shortform web video and just kind of stitching a bunch of those together is going to make for a winning TV program."

Rather, he said that TV "has to be developed specifically for that format and developed in concert with the network or the platform to really make it work."

Mr. Moe's comments are not quite an indictment of Vice's approach, but it's true that some of the shows that will appear on Viceland -- such as rapper-turned-chef Action Bronson's cooking/travel show, "F--k, That's Delicious" -- began as digital series. The thinking is that if a show can develop an audience online, it could potentially do so on TV, where the advertising is more lucrative and the dedicated audience could be bigger.

Citing some of the costs and challenges of making TV, such as casting, Mr. Moe said that "the digital players that are going to be able to become real participants in the TV market are going to have the wherewithal -- organizationally, financially, and creatively -- to do the hard work of TV."

Refinery29 CEO Justin Stefano echoed Mr. Moe when describing the challenges of the platform. "TV's really hard to do well, otherwise more people would do it," he told Ad Age in a recent interview.

He also spoke about what a successful Viceland could mean for his corner of the industry. "We're pulling, we're like really cheering from the sidelines for this Viceland thing, really hoping it works out, because it will be a really great precedent for lots of digital companies that want to get in and do stuff in the television space," he said.

There are risks, of course. TV, Mr. Stefano said, can "be the thing that ... [catapults] you into like the stratosphere in terms of the value of your business. If you don't do it well, it can also be the anchor that drags you to the bottom of the ocean."

Mike Dyer, president of The Daily Beast, told Bloomberg News that "there are very few publishers that are set up to do the kinds of work Vice has done to prepare for a TV show and their network, but we're all looking at it."

BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post have also been labeled as potential TV participants, though representatives for both companies declined comment when asked about Viceland and their larger TV aspirations. Both companies produce digital series that could potentially be sold to a TV company or to an over-the-top network like Netflix or Amazon. (Last summer, NBC Universal invested heavily in BuzzFeed and Vox Media, raising the likelihood of a programming partnership on one of the company's networks.)

BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield said that selling such content to TV companies is "pretty easy," especially when compared with the challenge of launching a standalone channel, as Vice has now done. It "took Vice a lot longer than expected," he said. (Vice is also introducing a daily news show on HBO, to go along with its weekly newsmagazine show, now in its fourth season.)

"Original content programming is really emerging as a key differentiator for media companies seeking to become TV players and get more connected with their audiences," said Forrester Research analyst Samantha Merlivat in an email. "This gives digital media companies an opportunity to enter the TV space if they can produce strong, original content -- like Netflix and Amazon did before them."

But she sounded a familiar note of caution: "The transition to TV is a big step -- TV content is a different animal all together. So while it helps that these companies have developed productions arms for digital video, it doesn't mean this will necessarily translate into successful TV content production. A company like BuzzFeed, for instance, typically tests and optimizes video content before pushing for its distribution. ... That's not possible when you produce TV content; the dynamics behind linear programming are more rigid."

For the digital publishers that are looking to get into TV in a big way, Mr. Moe said that differentation will be key. "Each player that wants to go after this is going to have to figure out what makes the unique and what makes them something special, so that the programming they produce is going to be worthwhile and ultimately attractive to audiences and buyers," he said. (Ms. Merlivat said that attracting a loyal audience is also particularly important on TV.)

Vox Media has "a number of ideas in the pipeline," Mr. Moe said of the company's TV timeline, before clamming up a bit. "When we sell our first show or series, we'll be ready to talk about it," he added.

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