VBS.tv: Reporting off the beaten path

By Robin Ianson

Watching the news on television can be a frustrating experience. In a world where media conglomerates have a death grip on the medium, it can be hard to get the real message. However, VICE Magazine has come up with a novel solution: taking TV out of the hands of mainstream media by moving TV to the land of blogs, email and pornography. That’s right. They put it on the Internet, in the form of VBS.

Currently publishing out of New York City, VICE Magazine started out in Montreal in 1994 and slowly evolved into the mag that scenesters know and love today. Never one to shy away from fun topics like sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, past VICE stories have included lists of the best party universities, hangin’ with heroin-dealing gangs and entire issues devoted to sex. The genesis of VBS can be traced back to an innocent comment made by Oscar-nominated director and VICE fan Spike Jonze, who has since signed on as creative director for VBS.

“The whole thing started because Spike Jonze said to me one day, ‘You shoot all your articles in the mag right?’” explains VICE and VBS co-founder Shane Smith. “I was like, ‘Uh yeah.’ How do we shoot? How do we do this? We started out with the travel DVD and a lot of times when things happened we wouldn’t turn on the camera. It would be like ‘Wow this is amazing! Who’s shooting this?’ Nobody.”

VICE learned from their mistakes making the travel DVD­–they turn on the camera now–and used what they learned to launch their brand new network and website VBS.tv. Only a month after launch they are up to 26 shows and a million unique visitors.

“I think mainstream media has failed,” says Smith. “I have 1,000 channels with Time Warner down here and I don’t watch any of them. Four major media companies own everything and consequently the news is very conservative and status quo. I think that the ‘net is a great tool for democracy. Millions of people see your stuff and it’s totally done free from mainstream media.”

Being one of the little guys has proved to be an interesting experience for VBS. For their Heavy Metal in Baghdad show they weren’t allowed to enter Iraq because they weren’t affiliated with any of the major news networks. So they snuck in instead.

“Sometimes we get in through the front door and if not we get in through the back door,” says Smith. “I think that frees us up a lot. Major news companies couldn’t get into Darfur and we did. We snuck in. No regular TV show is gonna let you sneak into Darfur because you can get thrown in jail for life. We definitely take the back door more than the front door. Although, I did just get invited to go to North Korea for Kim Jong Il’s birthday celebration.”

Being outside of mainstream media has provided VBS with the opportunity to highlight social issues largely ignored by the mainstream, such as the terrible conflict in Sudan and the devastation of the Appalachian mountain range by strip-mining firms. That isn’t to say VBS is serious all the time. Viewers can watch all sorts of content from investigative journalism to music videos to The Cute Show, which stars fuzzy animals doing cute things for the entirety of each episode. VICE Magazine’s most popular feature, Dos and Don’ts, has been expanded for VBS with minor cultural icons taking over the duties of bashing on the poorly dressed and worshipping fashionistas.

“We try to do a little bit of everything,” says Smith. “Just because we’re serious doesn’t mean we’re serious all the time or doesn’t mean we don’t like music. We’re pissed off about the environment and with politics we’re like, ‘What the fuck is going on with politics these days?,’ but we still like music and we still like to laugh. We never make anything for any perceived demographic. The litmus test is: ‘Do we like it and is it good?’”

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