Cable ratings are in the toilet. Aside from sports, you’re about as likely to catch a young male watching linear television as you are to spot a Yeti in the Gobi Desert, and young women viewers are on their way toward becoming equally scarce. Meanwhile, competition for what few ad-supported eyeballs remain is fierce.
So why would anyone launch a cable channel in 2016? Yet that’s exactly what A&E Networks and media industry darling Vice Media are doing with Viceland, the super-edgy, super-hip network that replaced H2 (the second History channel) on cable lineups Monday. The goal, as Vice CEO Shane Smith has told anyone who will listen, is to make some ad money and maybe bring some of those millennial viewers back to the TV screen by convincing them they’re not watching traditional television.
In other words, the network is attempting to reach me, a 28-year-old urban dweller. So after reading the latest screeds against my generational cohort, I decided to live like the stereotypical millennial for a few hours, typing and tweeting on the couch while watching Viceland’s daytime lineup.
Viceland is launching with six original series, all with names that seem designed to give any stray viewer unaware of the H2/Viceland switch the vapors, including “F---, That’s Delicious,” “Flophouse” and “Weediquette.” As with other cable networks, though, these original series don’t air new episodes until 10 p.m. EST.
That leaves a lot of airtime to fill. Rather than stock the remaining hours with old movies and off-network reruns, Viceland is so far relying on old Vice content. Here’s what I observed in my first few hours with the network:
9 a.m. — The Millennial Wakes
Unfortunately for Viceland, Time Warner Cable’s legendarily awful search function doesn't currently call up the channel in search results, and so one must scroll through the guide like a plebeian until it appears, nestled in between an Animal Planet and FYI.
What channel is this vice channel on and how do I find it?
— Jon Steinberg (@jonsteinberg) March 1, 2016
Given the steadily decreasing amount of time people spend searching for content to watch on TV, and the fact that most people stick to the same 17 channels, discoverability might be a genuine problem for Viceland.
9:05 a.m. — ‘Weediquette’
Though Time Warner Cable insists on marking it as “new,” an old episode of “Weediquette” is on — specifically, the first episode, in which host Krishna Andavolu takes the viewer through the heartbreaking, fascinating world of kids whose parents are using marijuana to treat childhood cancers.
The first ad break comes at 9:14 a.m. and is a short affair. It consists of slick Vice Media promotions, a couple local ads for Time Warner Cable and the televisual scourge that is a Kars4Kids commercial. The first hour of Viceland I watched contained a mere five ad breaks of no more than two or three minutes each, admirable restraint for any cable network, particularly a young one, since some cable nets run upwards of 24 minutes of ads per hour (or perhaps clients simply aren’t lining up yet).
10 a.m.— ‘Balls Deep’
A half-hour docuseries hosted by Vice personality Thomas Morton, who just wants to experience the everyday lives of people all around the world. This particular installment concerns an old-fashioned Pentecostal tent revival, with the somewhat slight Morton swinging a sledgehammer to help the congregation’s preacher put the tent up.
10:30 a.m. — ‘F---, That's Delicious’
Rapper Action Bronson and his crew fill half an hour with a docuseries that follows them as they eat, explore various cities Bronson happens to be touring in and perform. Interestingly, for all the “edge” the network’s executives tout, Viceland is following the general cable rules of bleeping all profanity. The FCC’s indecency rules only apply to broadcast TV and radio, so there’s no apparent reason to bleep Bronson and the title of his show.
11 a.m. — ‘Flophouse’
Up-and-coming comedians live chaotic lives in a chaotic house. Some are funny; others might want to get used to living in squalor.
11:30 a.m. — ‘Vice Lab’
This is just a mishmash of random segments surrounded by Adult Swim-esque wrappers featuring Vice’s Dan Meyer. “If it's good, then you'll just enjoy it as you enjoy regular television,” Meyer says, introducing the show. “But if it’s bad, then you’ll understand, because there’s a good chance you've made something bad in your life, and this is our chance to relate to you.”
“Former Intern” Taji Ameen interviews host Thomas Morton, whom we just saw an hour and a half ago, when the world was young. It feels like Brooklyn threw up on my television screen after reading Karl Ove Knausgård’s “My Struggle” and watching reruns of Adult Swim’s “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” for a few days straight. I realize that the channel “bumps” that come right before the ads in a commercial break, too, are like less amusing versions of Adult Swim’s classic bumps.
Adult Swim, the block of programming that runs from 9 p.m. to the wee hours of the morning on Cartoon Network, has found the Yeti in the Gobi: Reruns of “Futurama” and bizarrely funny shows like “Childrens Hospital” draw more young male viewers than almost anyone else on cable. What Adult Swim has that Viceland doesn't is the type of shows young male viewers like — comedies that skew weird.
12 p.m. — ‘F---, That’s Delicious’ (Again)
The Viceland cycle of content is complete. Throughout the rest of the day, the rest of the programming is the same shows, including actress Ellen Page’s “Gaycation,” repeated endlessly.
Throughout the three hours I spent glued to the tube, there were only a handful of national ads from actual sponsors, all produced by Vice Media; the rest of the ad time was devoted to network promotion.
MailChimp (the email marketing service made famous by the “Serial” podcast) got itself a tongue-in-cheek “They asked for a 30-second ad and we thought that meant making the ad in 30 seconds” spot; Tresemmé teamed up with Vice’s women-centric site, Broadly, for an advertorial. The rest of the non-Vice produced ads were local spots of the kind you’d find anywhere else on the guide — local attorneys desperate for their “Better Call Saul” moment and public service announcements.
There are two types of TV viewers: those who just want some sonic wallpaper, and those seeking real engagement, something to hold their attention, whether through entertainment or education. Viceland caters to neither.
The problem with Viceland isn’t that the programming isn’t good. The production values are outstanding; the subject matter is (mostly) interesting, even if the material ends up feeling a little hollow, a little too slick. Rather, the problem is structural: Viceland is attempting to bring in a 24/7 audience that simply isn’t looking for half-hour documentaries about rap stars who are also amateur chefs. It is, in essence, utterly superfluous — just like most cable networks.
F---, that’s Viceland.