Commentary

Vice, The Last Of The Media Brands

As much as people in this line of work want to believe otherwise, nobody gives a hoot about media brands anymore. While I may continue to gravitate towards certain content producers, based either on past affinity or newfound admiration for the way they present themselves digitally, most consumers of media go where their pals’ links take them. Which is to say: From Facebook to point B. Point B can be The Economist or Red Bull’s YouTube page or some 22-year-old’s Tumblr. As @ElBloombito might say, viva el democratization-o of media!

This does not represent the end of journalism as we know it (though at some point it might behoove us to answer the question, “So, who’s gonna pay for this?”). But it does mean that established media brands can’t coast on their legacies, however much they yearn for the days of pre-multichannel primacy.

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As we analog-reared fogies age out of the demographic crosshairs of most major marketers, we’re not being replaced by evening-news enthusiasts. Nobody’s sprinting out to the mailbox for the May 1985 issue of Guitar, as I once did. Hell, is anybody sprinting out to the mailbox for anything nowadays? YES! TWO DAMP LEAFLETS FOR A LANDSCAPING UPSTART AND THE WATER BILL! SCORE!

Which brings me to Vice, the one exception to this barely-thought-through theory. What started as a sneery, self-impressed operation has morphed into one of the few specifically defined media brands out there. It’s consistent attitudinally, tonally and all those other good things-ally. As a result, the Vice imprimatur means something - as opposed to, say, GQ slapping its name on a Spotify playlist.

For younger media consumers raised on the Internet, Vice is synonymous with authenticity. They’ll go where Vice goes; Vice makes it easy for them to do so, courtesy of a platform-agnosticism that, even today, remains rare in the media landscape.

It’s an easy brand to mock - The Onion has done so quite cuttingly, courtesy of its bombastically over-reported, machete-happy EDGE videos. Then you watch Vice’s segments on injustices in countries that aren’t this one, and you realize that, wow, its journalists and producers actually give a shit. Vice’s reporters can pick out Venezuela on a map, which puts them in the distinct minority nowadays.

Vice is also wonderfully open-minded when it comes to collaboration, which brings us to today’s exercise. Because my personal brand is now defined by oldness, I’m rarely awake past 8:25 p.m. Yet on Monday night, Better Call Saul and an unreckoned-with pile of laundry conspired to keep me conscious until the start of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert… and what a start it was, with a cold opening unlike anything seen on one of these shows since the heyday of Dave.

It was a short film (I’m going with “film” here; to label it a “video” is to diminish its ambition) directed by Spike Jonze, who’s now creative director of the Viceland content operation. In it, Colbert awakens in Central Park and wanders forlornly around New York City, laughed at by children and ignored when he extends a hand to passersby. He appears ready to give up, until Grover - yeah, that Grover, in all his furry glory - pulls him off the sidewalk and administers what appears to be a pep talk (the film is dialogue-free). They approach Colbert’s midtown studio; an open backstage door beckons and he enters, the roar of the crowd enveloping him. A look that’s simultaneously blissful and full of purpose washes over his face. The homecoming complete, the show begins.

How unusual and deeply felt is that? Late-night hosts don’t do Feelings-with-a-capital-F; they’re expected to traffic in coolness and maintain an ironic distance. Yet with the film, Jonze - the evening’s lead guest, talking all things Viceland - manages to remold a network institution in his own image (temporarily, anyway).

If this is what Jonze and Co. plan to do with Viceland’s food/travel genre programming, it’s going to extend the brand’s appeal far beyond Millennials. If there’s one media brand to add to your A-list, it’s Vice.

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