One more vice

Gritty magazine adds online television to its catalogue

By Kate Wilson

You can get a lesson in taxidermy while watching a young woman calmly skin a fox right in front of you. You can see what life is really like in Iraq while taking a trip to meet members of the country’s only heavy metal band. You can learn how mining companies are taking the tops off the Appalachian Mountains to get coal and the water is running black in West Virginia.

You can do these things thanks to Vice magazine’s latest venture – their online television station, the Vice Broadcasting System.

VBS, which was officially launched in March 2007, is the latest effort by the magazine to capture a new audience. “The idea of VBS is to do stories on things that are happening in the world that interest us - things that we want to learn about or are worried about or excited about. We want to cover news in a way that is personal,” says Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), creative director of the new online television venture, which evolved from the 2006 Vice Guide to Travel DVD.  “We are not experts. The world is in a really weird and dangerous and exciting place right now and this is our way of trying to understand it better, and of telling stories that acknowledge that we are just people trying to figure it out too.”

Associate publisher Ryan Archibald agrees.  “VBS is the next progression in things . . . taking our articles ‘live’ for people to see,” he says. “Using the Internet rather than TV gives us the freedom to do whatever, whenever we want.”

Vice started out as a small make-work project in Montreal in 1994.  Since then it has evolved off the page and now is an entire brand that includes music, retail, marketing, books, film, television and the new frontier of online television. With offices in 13 cities in North America, Europe, Asia and Australia – including Montreal and Toronto – Vice seeks to espouse all that is hip and offbeat. A story in the  January  “Girls” Issue, featured a woman who makes extra money selling her urine and used underwear online.

“While still encompassing its humour, it’s more sophisticated now,” says Archibald, who has been with the magazine for more than five years. Stories are “more hard hitting . . . broadening its audience into an older demographic, while still adhering to the young adult readers.”

The magazine’s three co-founders Suroosh Alvi, Gavin McInnes and Shane Smith are still involved with Vice as contributors for VBS. Alvi went to Baghdad after Saddam Hussein’s fall from power. Smith toured the Sudan, meeting with young orphaned boys addicted to sniffing glue and stepping inside a madrasah, an Islamic religious school for boys and young men.

Even the magazine’s popular Dos and Don’ts column, which provides comments on awful and awesome fashion choices, has its own online version on the new net channel.

“[The Internet] has allowed us to spread ourselves to a great number of people that otherwise may not have had access,” Archibald says. “The magazine’s site, viceland.com sees a great deal of hits each month (62,856 hits from Canada alone). And we are now increasingly getting subscriptions from places like Nowheresville, Saskatchewan where we certainly don’t have regular magazine distribution.

“The Internet allows us to constantly update and add to things whenever we want, and blogs and forums allow us to directly interact and get instant feedback from our readers and viewers. It’s allowed for our following to turn into a community.

“VBS stories are really just magazine article ideas that we’d have, or have written about, brought to life,” Archibald explains. “This was the whole purpose of starting VBS – to film the things we’ve been discussing in the magazine. Many of the pieces up there now are based on articles or entertaining ideas we have done in the past.

“Whatever the medium, it just portrays reality in a no-holds-back honest manner,” he says.

None of this takes away from the magazine, 50,000 copies of which are distributed free across Canada and more than 880,000 worldwide. Nina Sudra, who does publicity for VBS, says Vice is a for-profit venture that makes its money through advertising.

“The magazine will always remain the root of it all,” Archibald says. He says the success of the magazine made it possible to make records, books, DVDs, films and VBS. “We’ll have to stay true to where it all came from.”

In the meantime, Vice is already looking ahead to its next project – the big screen, says Archibald.

“Aside from that, we’ll just see where things take us, and we won’t put any boundaries or limits on where we’ll go,” Archibald says. “Well, I suppose world domination sets the bar as high as you can go, so that’s our limit.” MW