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Vice’s Shane Smith on Trying to Avoid the ‘Crack Cocaine’ of Donald Trump — IndieWire’s Turn It On Podcast

Smith on his ambitious goals for Viceland, why his partners wish Vice was more controversial, and how the media is focusing on the wrong things with Trump.

Shane SmithLimoland launch Jean Pigozzi's home, New York, America - 07 May 2013

Shane Smith

Neil Rasmus/BFA/REX/Shutterstock

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Shane Smith is a year into his multi-prong TV extension of the Vice brand and he remains bullish — as he should be. Vice Media just landed a $450 million investment from asset firm TPG, which puts its valuation up to $5.7 billion. Not bad for a company that started as an edgy street magazine in Canada.

Now Vice Media’s assets include the TV network Viceland, the nightly HBO news program “Vice News Tonight” and the HBO documentary series “Vice,” several digital channels, and a film unit, among many other things. Viceland is on tap to expand into 80 territories. And in a world where Facebook and Google dominate, Smith is growing Vice’s library to be what he calls the largest collection of millennial intellectual property out there.

IndieWire’s TURN IT ON sat down with Smith to discuss the status of Vice’s expansion, plus running a company that prides itself on reporting the truth despite living in a time of a president who spreads lies and is stirring up hatred against the media. Listen below!

Smith has ambitious plans for Viceland over the next year and a half, as he looks to the future and realizes that only the strongest networks will be included in “skinny bundle” offerings.

“Online and TV, it’s all going to merge,” he said. “If you look at skinny bundles, it will be skinny bundles for cable but also OTT [over-the-top] providers. Unless you’re in on the skinny bundle on both sides, you’re going to be screwed. We want to get into the top 30 [of networks], that’s our goal for the next 18 months.”

How might Viceland reach that goal? “Having the largest library of millennial IP is important for us,” he said. Smith is also watching as other networks – such as Pivot and Esquire – fade away. “People are looking at us and mimicking what we’ve done,” Smith said of using a linear platform to build up that video library.

As for operating multiple operations with multiple partners (A+E, HBO), Smith admits that there is a bit of confusion out there. But he lays it out this way: News goes to Vice News via the HBO properties, and lifestyle goes to Viceland via A+E. “The good news for me as a megalomaniac is that I vote the board, 95% of the parent. I can Napoleon or Stalin it between the networks.”

While we live in an age of outrage, Vice built its brand on usurping tradition and occasionally courting controversy. “If you are trying to manage out of fear of what will happen, you’re not going to do anything new or innovative,” he said.

But Smith said Vice has gotten more careful: “In this day and age of opposition research, we have to be buttoned up and squeaky clean. At some point there has to be a backlash. Everyone goes after everybody. It becomes mud slinging.”

As for his partners, “I think they’d like us to be a little more controversial because controversy brings in ratings. They would like to see more Kim Jong-un [who appeared on the first episode of “Vice” on HBO] in the mix.”

How does Vice navigate the current Trump administration? “Early on we said we can’t fall prey to the crack cocaine that is Trump because if you get addicted to it you have to ween yourself off,” Smith said. “What we did say to differentiate ourselves was we were going to follow policy. Trump can tweet and do all these things but, what does it mean to have [Scott] Pruitt running the EPA who tried to shut down the EPA? What does it mean to have [Rick] Perry running the Department of Energy when he campaigned to undo the Department of Energy?

“What does it mean that the entirety of Trump’s cabinet are climate change deniers? Thats being lost in the headlines. We are literally marching backwards as fast as we can. Not just for the environment but social justice, LGBTQ rights, and were obsessed with lunatic fringe tweets. It’s the greatest reality show ever but the symptoms are dire.”

With Vice reporters risking their lives in hotspots around the globe, Smith is particularly sensitive to Trump’s attacks on the press.

“He calls the press the opposition, but that’s the press’ job,” Smith said. “Without free press there is no democracy, it’s just propaganda.”

Does Smith think he could get anything out of interviewing Trump? “Anyone who gets an interview with him is going to get something. He’s not like Putin, who’s sort of strategic and well thought out. He’s got buttons that you can push.”

Shane Smith and Michael Schneider

IndieWire

IndieWire’s “TURN IT ON with Michael Schneider” is a weekly dive into what’s new and what’s now in TV – no matter what you’re watching or where you’re watching it. With an enormous amount of choices overwhelming even the most sophisticated viewer, “TURN IT ON” is a must-listen for TV fans looking to make sense of what to watch and where to watch it.

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