Vice's Grown-Up Upfront

Photo by Bryan Derballa

As the fall’s first cold front descended upon Brooklyn,  three dancers in bikinis gyrated listlessy in the Byzantine marble hall of the borough’s second tallest building, One Hanson Place. The word “PORN,” flashed in alternating red and white letters on a ten foot-tall screen behind them. A cannon of confetti aimed in their direction exploded, and Vice chief executive officer Shane Smith and vice president Andrew Creighton, in trim suits and glinting watches, walked on stage to commence the hipster media giant’s first annual upfront.

“We don’t really know what an upfront is,” Mr. Smith told the crowd (there were hundreds in attendance, though the space was big enough for many more), holding his cocktail with a perpetual shrug. “We’ve never been to one.”

An upfront is a television network’s annual sales pitch of the season’s programming to advertisers, accompanied with boozing. They generally occur in May.

“None of you are advertisers, none of you are media buyers,” Mr. Smith said. “Most of you are heroin addicts.”

Unless our junkie radar has gone haywire, this was mostly a glancing reference to the Vice days of yore. There were indeed advertisers present, as well as hordes of press and the waifish, vaguely creative media-types who can usually be distinguished from real smack addicts by the careful upkeep of their beards.

In fact, there was legitimate occasion for an upfront, and a high production value video presentation to prove it. Vice presented a new show for HBO (a 60 Minutes for young people to be executive produced by Bill Maher), and a host of online video series, including “independently produced” favorites like the The Vice Guide to Travel and Epicly Later’d, as well a slew of series produced “in concert with brands” like GE, Toshiba, Mini, Absolut, and InCase. Vice’s global multimedia smorgasbord employs more than 3,000 “content creators,” said Mr. Smith, a quick study in media lingo.

“People still think of us as the magazine,” Mr. Smith told the New York Times during the week’s press blitz. “They don’t realize that’s the smallest part of our business.”

To Mr. Smith’s credit, it would be impossible to confuse the upfront with a Vice magazine party. Vice magazine parties were once held in the empty warehouses of post-industrial, pre-gentrified North Brooklyn. The Vice Upfront Extravaganza, as it was called, was held at the Art Deco landmark One Hanson Place, which once housed the Williamsburgh Savings Bank and has long been a hive of dental offices.

The Cipriani-scale space was dressed up in mega-corporate party clothes. We would put the balloon budget north of five figures. It would be chump change for Vice, which received a multi-million dollar cash infusion this spring, from investors including ex-Viacom exec (and, in Vice spirit, now Afghan media mogul) Tom Freston, William Morris Endeavor, and Ari Emanuel. There were at least three open bars, serving Absolut vodka, Mount Gay rum, and Grolsch beer.

Despite Vice’s reputation, nothing about the Vice Upfront Extravaganza was ironic—not even the bawdy introduction. The party ostensibly celebrated Vice’s purchase of the domain from a pornography publisher. Vice magazine had been camped out at since 1998, when the owner requested $1 M for the domain. He recently faced legal troubles and lowered his asking price, they said. Porn made a titillating theme for the tedious job of pitching the new Vice’s business model.

“Everything we know about online comes from porn,” Mr. Smith repeated often throughout the presentation.

That the market’s invisible hand is also its masturbating one is a common enough strain in new media theory. Porn sites set the pace in search engine optimization, location-based advertising, and, of course, high definition streaming video.

But Vice pitched itself as a news organization savvy enough to use the tricks of the seedier trade to make the business of serious international news reporting more lucrative. Their take on the news would be raw and honest, they explained, undoing the sinister work of phony cable news personalities. Indeed, Vice’s entirely unique reports from Congo, Liberia, and Libya bolstered this promise.

“Vice is at the forefront of a news revolution,” Mr. Smith said, as the slide behind him changed to clip art of a red flag bearing the faces of Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, and Vladimir Lenin.

  Vice's Grown-Up Upfront