The Symbolic Changing of the Guard: Viacom Out, Vice In

Sumner Redstone once presided powerfully over the large media conglomerate Viacom, and the TV network CBS. Now, at 93, he is losing his faculties and has been forced to step down from the boards of both organizations. His decline marks the end of an era, and comes at the same time that Viacom itself finds its existence threatened. Shane Smith, Vice Media CEO, has said that he expects Viacom to “implode” in the next year, and perhaps take Time Warner and Fox with it. Smith said, “We’re the largest new media company, and we’re going to become the fourth-largest or fifth-largest, or maybe the third-largest [mainstream media company]. I don’t think it’s any secret that you’re going to see a bloodbath in the next 12 months of digital, mobile and terrestrial.”

This is big talk from upstart Vice, but it may well be true. Vice is the essence of a new media company in every sense of the word. It produces 7,000 pieces of content in a day, a completely different model than traditional print or TV. Its method for getting that content produced and online has been likened to a sweatshop, but it’s really more like the pressure of a tech company. And, like tech companies, it is staffed largely by people who in a traditional media company would be the interns. There’s very little adult supervision, Smith admits.

I don’t know a lot of stuff we’re doing. The answer is you have to have editors and writers that you trust. The majority of Vice people are coming straight out of college and rise up. So I know each one in each country is a Vice person and I know that most of my people are Vice people. There’s a lot of stuff that gets published out there that I don’t like or agree with necessarily because a 23-year-old will write it, but that’s the brand. The brand isn’t me anymore. The brand is a sum total of many voices and I think the greatest success of Vice is that we revamped the brand, giving it over to the interns and said, “Have at it.” Sometimes that’s unpleasant or not pretty.

Like Buzzfeed, Vice is convinced that the next generation of media businesses will be on all platforms. Vice itself is on HBO, has just started its own cable network, and owns not only the Vice news site, but also Motherboard, a tech site.

The primary threat to Vice isn’t traditional cable, like Viacom or Time Warner, but Facebook.  Smith voices the opinion almost every publishers has about Facebook:

This is the biggest problem of the world: Facebook has bought two-thirds of the new media companies out there without spending a dime because they own a majority of their mobile. That’s great for Facebook, but bad for their platform. That’s why we’re trying to get on all platforms because we can monetize on all platforms then we can get away from the patrimony of Facebook.

It will be interesting to follow the future of Vice as it moves from a scrappy new media company full of interns to a full-fledged “mainstream” media company over the next few years. To us, the way Vice confronts the same problems faced by all other publishers will send a signal about the future of ad-supported media.