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Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Vice's Shane Smith: "60 Minutes is Old and Tired"


"60 Minutes used to be the greatest news show," begins Vice's outspoken co-founder Shane Smith. "60 Minutes is sad and tired and they steal our ideas."

60 Minutes may have had last week their best night in two years, but Smith is not buying it.

On a rainy Thursday afternoon at the Paley Center in Manhattan Smith, interviewed by Jeff Jarvis, held forth about a great many things media related. The day before Smith had announced a $500,000 journalist innovation award. "I'm a blunt instrument," Smith said, earlier in the talk, in an uncharacteristic moment of understatement.

The discussion, at the venerable Paley Center for Media founded by William Paley, began with Smith saying,"I think TV had a good run." He was only half joking. Shane Smith is, above all things, a disruptor in the news business. And he likes that. Asked why Smith is in, of all things, the news business, he lists the challenges. "Young people don't care about the news," he says. "They especially don't care about international news. And they want short, stackable portions." Then he lists the successes of his company: the high watch time, the high video subscriptions, the Emmy and, oh yeah, the highest video completion rate in all of YouTube. Not that he's bragging.

If it sounds as if Shane Smith bragging, he has reason to. Vice News is the fastest growing news platform on the web. And the demographics that watch and read Vice are the media sweet spot. "Everyone who said young people don't care about the news ... we proved them wrong."

How did he do it? Quite simply, the Vice disruption came about when mainstream media was caught napping. By way of example he mentions Vice's popular show "Fuck, That's Delicious." He thought about how profitable food shows are and noticed that no one was doing a food show targeted at Gen Y. "Gen Y went from nice media to mainstream and no one noticed."

Shane Smith, media disruptor, is just as contemptuous of the big three networks and how they handle news. He is highly critical of what he calls the "superhuman journalism standard." He says of Vice journos, "they are not superhuman ... in fact, they are smaller and weaker than you." By way of example he cites his favorite Vice star, unfortunately named "Baby Balls." "He's my favorite .. no one would ever cast him in anything." Baby Balls is, according to Smith, "98-pounds soaking wet," has "halitosis," and "(body odor)." And yet he is the breakout star of Vice. "If we could make Baby Balls a star, we could make anyone famous," said Smith, smiling.

And normality might be one key to Vice's success. Aside from the Navy SEALs on staff for their crisis rescue team, Vice stars are pretty normal. In fact, Vice increasingly relies on local journalists for their international coverage. Is Baby Balls the next Brian Williams, Jeff Jarvis asked. "Yes," said Shane, with more than a hint of delight in his voice.

Baby Balls was once an intern. And that is another key to the success of Vice. "Every five years or so we have a Maoist purge," Smith says, again half-joking. "We literally give the company to (our) interns." Giving a bunch of 23-year olds the keys to a multi-billion dollar media empire may sound like a bit much, but one cannot argue against the success and, in this fast-paced media world, the longevity of Vice. "We were (your) older brother's hipster source (in the 1980s)," Smith said. And now they are so much more.

There are sometimes problems with Vice going in for normality. "We had an editor (in France) who was a junkie and he ended up doing junk in the office and we couldn't fire him." Presumably NBC doesn't have that problem with Brian Williams.

What's in store for the future of Vice? Smith is coy, but he let slip that he is interested in buying distressed media organizations -- if the price is right. "There's a lot of distressed media outlets -- some of them in TV -- that we might go after." He mentioned, quite possibly, HLN. "We can do better." Right now, however, his mantra, repeated over and over again during the interview, was "mobile, online and video," not necessarily in that order.

And content. "We do zero aggregation, we do everything soup to nuts," he said. Then he took a shot at AOL/Huffington Post. "(News aggregation) is not a sexy business," he said, barely concealing the disgust. Smith has immense admiration for Netflix. "I think Netflix has done an interesting job," he says, with obvious delight. His wife was a huge ambassador and gave Netflix subscriptions to every member of their family.

Shane Smith's present state of mind is happy. "We're in the right place at the right time ... and that's great."

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