The timeless appeal of Vice Media

By Jack Shafer
June 25, 2014

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches a basketball game between former U.S. NBA basketball players and North Korean players of the Hwaebul team of the DPRK with Dennis Rodman at Pyongyang Indoor Stadium

The kings of capitalism keep rewarding the imps at Vice Media for their transgressions against societal and media norms with rising market valuations. Starting with a wee, free counter-culture magazine in Montreal in 1994, the ageless boys behind Vice soon barnstormed Canada with their title and by 1999 were international and ensconced in New York.

Peddling outré features such as the “Vice Guide to Surviving in Prison,” “A Brief History of the Dildo,” and “Held Hostage in Burma by Teenagers,” Vice has warmed the blood of its young male readership with the hardboiled and sensational in print, online and video. Back in 2000, the Montreal Gazette pegged the rising magazine’s worth at $500,000 and the whole operation, online included, at $4 million.

Not long before the dotcom bubble ruptured, Vice Media co-founder, chief executive officer, and lead transgressor Shane Smith speculated that his company’s worth had grown to $40 million. In 2007, Smith revised the value of his burgeoning multimedia-conglomerate to “a shitpile,” and from that compost the company’s worth has ballooned. It was likely worth $1 billion, said Forbes in 2012, and this week the New York Times reckons it stands somewhere between $1.5 billion and $2.5 billion.

The value of Vice Media, as the many articles registering its success will tell you, is not solely based on revenues, which the Times reports are expected to top $500 million this year, nor its ongoing deal for a Vice TV show with HBO. What has attracted Rupert Murdoch, Time Warner, and Disney to Vice is the company’s potential to be another “multiplatform MTV,” as the Times puts it, with youth appeal, an idea that MTV co-founder and current Vice investor/advisor Tom Freston has surely cultivated among New York moneybags media. Beyond its in-house ad unit and corporate partnerships, Smith envisions a 24-hour global news channel for Vice, and don’t bet against him getting it. It will be like Animal Planet, only populated with wild people.

The expanding niche that Vice now rules — frank and exploitative takes on drugs, murder, sex, war, jail, violence, disaster and the crazed — has attracted substantial audiences since the invention of media in the 16th century, when lurid murders in France could find enthusiastic readers in English newspapers. Everybody loves monsters and the monstrous from afar, and young men being young men, have always desired a closer look at filth, chaos and danger — which is one reason they can be reliably talked into entering battle.

Although the astute media consumer can scent a bit of Larry Flynt’s Hustler smut in Vice Media’s output, the poisonous satire of Spy magazine, a smidgen of early High Times‘s dope adventurism, a heavy dose of the lad magazines from the 1990s, and a triple jigger of Mondo Cane — that smash documentary from 1962 that travelogued its way across the planet to record dog-slaughter (for human consumption) in Taiwan, ritual cross-dressing by Gurkha soldiers, New Guinean cargo-cultists, and more — Smith’s editorial weathervane seems to have been planted in early-1840s New York, when the “flash press” thrived.

Chronicled in the 2008 book The Flash Press: Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840s New York, such titles as the Whip, the Weekly Rake, and the Sunday Flash competed for the attention of the young, urban male audience with outrageous and libidinous tales. Like Vice Media, the flash press combined the voyeuristic with the instructional. Fresh off the farm young men were educated by the flash press on where to find New York’s 5,000-to-10,000 prostitutes (Broadway, the third tier of the Olympic theater) and other forbidden pleasures of the city.

The flash-press story formula rarely deviated from the ingredients one Vice contributor told the New Yorker in 2013 were essential to his audience: “It’s the sniff test: Would I tell my buddy about it in a bar? Yes? Cool.” Like Vice Media, the flash press promulgated a male-centric view of the world in its exploration of gambling dens and brothels, which the Weekly Rake found as necessary “as bread and water.” Its humor was bawdy, its politics more libertine than libertarian. Women were to be seduced, debauched and discarded. You didn’t sip your alcohol, you soused yourself in it. Scoundrels, pimps, madams, and criminals were celebrated by the flash press, although sodomites were disdained as “fiends” and even outed in articles. (In this regard, Vice is much more universally accepting, eschewing the male heterosociablity displayed by flash press writers and readers.) Flash press theater reviews even tarted themselves up, offering assessments of the entertainments found in the balconies with those on the stage.

Bigger media empires have been built on smaller foundations than “Would I tell my bar-buddy about it.” Henry Luce started his by aggregating newspapers and William Paley his by transferring vaudeville to the airwaves. Like the flash press, Vice defines itself oppositionally to mainstream culture, burying its nose into stories that “classier” outlets would reject as too unsettling. For example, as if lifting a reel from Mondo Cane, Vice online ran a piece Tuesday about a Chinese dog-meat festival, complete with photos of a dead-and-slaughter hound and links to a similar piece from last year (“I Ate a Dog in Hanoi“).

As with the success of the flash press in the 1840s, the Vice triumph reveals a class battle, but one separated not by socioeconomics but by age and sex. Vice locates the editorial taboo lines defined by the conventional press — coverage from North Korea, gang violence, child suicide-bombers — and crosses them. They don’t just report from North Korea, they make Dennis Rodman the point in their spear. Just as flash press writers from the 1840s mocked their upper-class critics as hypocrites for keeping mistresses, Vice would likewise ridicule contemporary beef-eaters who pronounce as indecent its dog-meat journalism.

In comparing Vice Media to the flash press I mean it no derogation (nor do I elevate the flash press). High production-values, absorbing stories, and accuracy can be found in much of what Vice produces — see, for example, its documentaries about Tijuana (Deportee Purgatory, 2013) or Iraqi musicians (Heavy Metal in Baghdad, 2007).

Eventually, the flash press was suppressed and driven under by legal authorities, a fate that Vice need not fret about. As long as the world keeps planting new harvests of young males, there will continue to be an audience for Vice Media. But is its hold on that audience so unbreakable as new generations arrive that fresh competition might not displace it?

The $2.5 billion gold-strike predicted by the Times for Vice preordains a future in which a new entrant who goes lower, runs faster, and transgresses more vigorously might dislodge Vice’s grip on the young and randy franchise. What’s to prevent Viacom from remodeling one of its countless music channels to fit the Vice template? If competing editors and programmers can identify the taboos, make the audience anxious, and know how to exploit and settle that anxiety, they’ve half-finished Vice’s next set of features and documentaries.

Two additional dangers await Vice. One can commercialize the transgressive only as long as it exists — continued exposure to dope-shooting junkies or donkey sex tends to normalize it, and normalization is the destroyer of transgression. Like Playboy and Penthouse before it, will Vice be left for dead because all the societal boundaries have been violated? Or will it discover new boundaries we don’t even know upset us?

The other danger Vice faces as it transits from the cultural margins to the mainstream, is that for whatever its shortcomings, the blandness of the mainstream has always been more lucrative than the spicy. In the sprint to cash in, the company might be forced to temper its editorial recipe with Vice turning to rice.

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“Eating rice cakes is like chewing on a foam coffee cup, only less filling.” — Dave Barry. Send rice recipes to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and fortune cookies to my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTOS: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (2nd L) watches a basketball game between former U.S. NBA basketball players and North Korean players of the Hwaebul team of the DPRK with Dennis Rodman (R) at Pyongyang Indoor Stadium in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang January 9, 2014. REUTERS/KCNA

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VICE is the best!!

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