Vice HBO Show: Hits Harder Than CNN, and For Good Reason

Vice, the snarky, boorish, and oftentimes brazenly-offensive media company that owns a magazine, an ad agency, and subsidiary websites, made the jump to TV this month with the airing of “Vice on HBO.” The show’s goal is to ostensibly “expose the absurdity of the modern condition,” by placing young and oftentimes tattooed, scruffy correspondents in some of the world’s most perilous situations. Vice on HBO reports on the most harrowing news of the day, and uses a starker approach to convince viewers of the world’s barbarity. The reporting isn’t necessarily that in-depth, but that’s exactly what the show’s viewers–males predominantly between the ages of 18 and 34 — are looking for.

Vice has found a way to package news for this demographic: the bored millennial. Vice on HBO is void of the formulaic gravitas that constrains the reporting of media giants like CNN. And because of its honest if not simplistic approach, Vice on HBO is accessible to the internet-saturated minds of today’s youth.

Aesthetically, Vice on HBO looks like it was shot and produced for the web. It’s consciously stark and spare, and therefore its intended effect is quite blunt. It fulfills its goal of titillating a laddish audience with images seen more frequently in video games than network news. Footage of severed heads lining streets in Kabul and young children holding automatic assault weapons in the Philippines aren’t embellished by any superficial wisdom on behalf of correspondents — they’re meant to turn your gut, and succeed in doing so. Understandably, critics condemn the show’s graphic nature as debased and sensationalistic, devoid of any real journalistic merit.

But in reality, the show delves into situations and seeks out sources that other mainstream publications would never consider. In the first episode, Shane Smith, Vice’s founder, interviews a leading member of the Taliban about the organization’s use of suicide bombings. In another episode, which was the subject of widespread derision among media-types, the Vice crew went to North Korea with former NBA star Dennis Rodman to institute what was dubbed, “basketball diplomacy.” On that trip, staffers found themselves dining in the home of dictator Kim Jong Un, and were later castigated on the web for fraternizing with one of the world’s most famous villains. But whether or not the dinner with Kim Jong Un breached certain ethical standards, it shows that Vice maintains a certain fearlessness in capturing the story that should earn them an esteemed pedigree in the world of journalism. 

However, there is room for improvement in Vice’s reportage. The bare-bones formula is a worthwhile method for giving viewers a quick, yet thought-provoking look at the pitfalls of modern society, but it shouldn’t be the endgame of their storytelling, nor should it provide a reason to become too close to their subjects. There needs to be a concerted distance and established relationship between reporters and their subjects, no matter how illuminating a story might become. As evidenced by the basketball diplomacy spat, and the gloating of some Vice staffers after the fact, it’s obvious that cozying up to dangerous dictators can result in some negative PR.

But, detestable or not, Vice’s method is exactly what’s made them the global, rabble-rousing media conglomerate they are today. And some people, including Fareed Zakaria, editor at TIME magazine and host of CNN’s GPS, think they are on to something. “The methods they use are irreverent and unorthodox. It's what journalism should be," he said early this month. 

The attitude championed by Shane Smith, Vice’s founder, is to be an expansive, youth-minded outfit with unfettered ambition. He told the New Yorker early this month: “the over-all aim, the over-all goal is to be the largest network for young people in the world.”

And although it’s a work in progress, one might say that in respect to Smith’s plans for Vice, which started as a fledgling rag in Montreal 20 years ago, the time is right to become the world’s next big network, albeit with a different, more youthful approach.

Here's a clip from episode two, season one: