“A new kind of nightly news,” say the promos . . . “No anchors, no sponsors” . . . “Journalism without the makeup” . . . “Truth without talking heads” . . .
That’s the pitch. And soon, the product:
HBO will launch “Vice News Tonight” Monday at 7:30 p.m. as the first weeknight news program in its history. But why? What to expect? (And what does “Vice News Tonight” have against makeup, anyway?)
Lots of questions — and nothing yet to see (indeed, “VNT” has already been twice delayed). Here are some possible answers:
What exactly is “Vice News Tonight?”
It’s a five-night-a-week half-hour newscast, but beyond that, the rest of the answer must remain in the realm of speculation. Executive producer Josh Tyrangiel — who declined comment, citing deadline pressures — did tell Lloyd Grove of the Daily Beast last week that the marching orders from Vice founder and chief executive Shane Smith were to “reinvent” the nightly news format. “The brief on this project from the very beginning was: If you were to start fresh, how would you do it? How would you do it for 2016 and beyond, knowing full well that people arrive at a show probably knowing more than they’ve ever known in human history?”
Who is “VNT” for, exactly?
That well-rubbed word “millennial” gets tossed around whenever the conversation swings around to any of Vice’s assets — which include Viceland, the website, HBO’s weekly “Vice” news magazine, Vice Sports and the dozen new or aborning Vice “verticals,” or specialized digital channels that are already packed with video content. But let’s also include here centennials, or those born after the mid-’90s, as potential viewers.
Will millennials/centennials sit down to watch a nightly news program?
Best to direct that question to them, but the preponderance of evidence — or at least the preponderance of conventional wisdom — strongly says “no.” Hence, it’s the single biggest risk for “VNT,” and the necessity of reinvention.
Is “sit down to watch” even the right question?
Perhaps not. Mobility has far more cache with this cohort, as do mobile devices. The actual physical TV — if there is one — is probably just collecting dust somewhere. As part of that reinvention, “VNT” must somehow become part of a digital lifestyle that toggles constantly among work, entertainment and social media. Attention spans are not merely “divided” but attenuated as never before. In any event,“VNT” will probably get more viewers on HBO NOW and HBO GO, and both of those are a big part of the future of the HBO brand.
“VNT” has already been delayed — a sign of trouble?
Delays are rarely good signs, and “VNT” was originally slated for a 2015 launch, then a Sept. 26 one. But delays don’t matter (“Westworld,” after all, had also been delayed and is doing fine so far). It’s what causes them that do, and neither “VNT” nor Vice have offered specifics for these. Nevertheless, the process of reinvention is hard — best to get it right before launch.
What does Vice mean by “reinvention?”
“VNT” must still address the same questions that the rest of the TV journalism establishment must address each day — what is news and how should it be “packaged” for consumption? Allowing for stylistic differences, and some content ones, the three evening newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC are largely brisk, intelligent, efficient purveyors of news for an older, sedentary audience. But target audience of “VNT” is already information-saturated, and many of its potential viewers — at least the more motivated ones — will have already assembled a comprehensive dossier on a given news event by 7:30 p.m. That’s why “packaging” must take primacy here.
What then is “packaging”?
In the case of “VNT,” that’s best described as an attitude — irreverent, anti-establishment, a little bit hipper-than-thou. It’s all Williamsburg, no Park Slope. (Vice, in fact, is based in Williamsburg.) “Immersive” is another favored word, at least with the weekly magazine that eschews “talking heads” (other than Smith’s) in favor of exhaustively detailed reports on stories the mainstream media may have ignored.
But news is news — you can’t ignore that, right?
Right, and therein is the biggest challenge. A major hurricane in Florida must be covered on any daily TV news program, yet “VNT” must bring that special-value-added element, or as Tyrangiel told The Daily Beast’s Grove, “How do you inform [the audience] and deepen their understanding? . . . We think we need to provide some element of surprise or seduction to the audience all the time.”