Vice News Tonight—HBO’s millennial-friendly entry into the nightly competition for eyeballs, scoops, and buzz—is the latest iteration of a ceaseless exercise that has been preoccupying television executives since the invention of the medium: How to deliver to American viewers information about their world in ways that are digestible, diverting, maybe even enlightening, but also lucratively addictive.
“Shane’s instructions were pretty clear: Let’s reinvent it. Let’s start fresh,” says Josh Tyrangiel, executive producer of the half-hour newscast (which could run shorter on some nights, depending) that launches Monday at 7:30 p.m. as well as chief of news content overall for the hipster Brooklyn-based entertainment, lifestyle, and journalism juggernaut co-founded by Canadian-born media mogul Shane Smith.
“We came into this knowing full well that viewership for the standard nightly news has declined precipitously over the last 30 years,” Tyrangiel adds—although, to be honest, HBO would be ecstatic if the new offering attracts even a small fraction of the 25 million viewers who dependably watch the three traditional broadcast network newscasts every evening. “We’ve explored all sorts of unconventional ways of producing the news,” Tyrangiel goes on. “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? There’s so much information out there, and it’s a very well-informed audience about the ‘what’ of news over the course of the day. How do you add value to that? How do you surprise them? How do you inform them and deepen their understanding?... We think we need to provide some element of surprise or seduction to the audience all the time.”
HBO has committed to 48 weeks—or 240 episodes—of Vice News Tonight, and Programming Vice President Nina Rosenstein, the supervising executive for that show along with Bill Maher’s and John Oliver’s weekly programs and some others, explains: “We felt that the weekly Vice show [which airs on Friday nights in its fourth season] really brought another group of viewers into the network and framed the news in a way that hasn’t been done before. Now there is a real opportunity to engage with an audience, do it on a nightly basis and cover the stories we can’t do weekly… It’s content that’s going to work on our different platforms—HBO NOW and HBO GO as well as our linear network—and weave graphics into the storytelling in a way that we haven’t seen.”
All of the above is a tall order, and many have attempted to re-create the newscast format since CBS and NBC went from 15 to 30 minutes in 1963, with Walter Cronkite at CBS and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley presiding over at NBC.
Ten years ago, in the wake of Dan Rather’s unhappy departure from the CBS Evening News, CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves lured Katie Couric from NBC’s Today show for a then-eye-popping $15 million a year, and publicly mused about “blowing up” the traditional newscast and doing away with the “voice of God” anchor—a noble experiment that ultimately failed with an aging audience habituated to equally elderly white males.
And speaking of “seduction,” even that has been tried—not in the metaphorical sense that Tyrangiel means it, but literally. The Naked News, a six-day-a-week, 25-minute show that began in Toronto in 1999, features female anchors delivering straight news in their birthday suits or reading lead-ins as they sexily strip. Its slogan: “The program with nothing to hide.”
Vice News Tonight’s solution is slightly less erogenous: an anchor-free newscast featuring connective voice-overs by an unidentified producer or correspondent (in this case, former Al Jazeera staffer Dina Ellshinnawi, former Daily Beast cultural news editor Michael Moynihan and others) introducing the sort of deceptively laid-back, ethnically and gender-diverse story packages—frequently featuring the portly, bearded (and now fabulously wealthy) Smith—familiar to fans of Vice’s Emmy-winning weekly magazine show.
“Journalism without the makeup,” claims the new program’s promo. “Truth without the talking heads.”
Tyrangiel explains: “One of the ways the world has changed is that you can’t find a single person, for a plurality of Americans, to trust enough to put behind that desk to be a barometer of what is true, what is factual, and what is important to them. Also, an anchor is very expensive—not that we can’t afford an anchor, but we also believe that where we should spend our money is in gathering stories and sending our people to far parts of the world.”
Indeed, Vice Media—which started in 1994 as a humble dead-tree magazine in Montreal—is flush with money, not only from advertising and subscription revenue but from substantial investments from corporate media monoliths such as Time Warner, 21st Century Fox, Disney, and even, at one point, Viacom; former Viacom CEO Tom Freston, who founded MTV more than three decades ago, is one of the driving forces behind Vice Media’s multibillion-dollar expansion, boasting around 2,000 employees around the world.
The privately held company’s new show, Vice News Tonight promises, or at least aspires, not to be a slave to the 24-7 news cycle, but instead to present a different and original perspective. “When it comes to news,” says Tyrangiel, himself a veteran of Time magazine and Bloomberg News, “I think Vice has a willingness to go to lengths to immerse itself in a story, to be empathetic, to try to understand the views of people out there in the world, to be adventurous, and to try to understand stuff more deeply” than is possible with a traditional newscast that must cover every major headline.
As for the 2016 presidential campaign, with a month to go before the election, Vice has reporters embedded with the candidates and “we would like to have proportional coverage when there is something to report that is real or meaningful,” Tyrangiel says. “But I think everybody would agree that some elements of the coverage [by traditional cable and broadcast outlets] have become pornographic—and that’s not where our interest lies.”
Indeed, actually pornographic, as one of the major-party nominees recently urged his supporters to “check out” a nonexistent sex tape of a beauty-pageant winner he happened to be squabbling with.
“I wasn’t even speaking literally, but yeah,” Tyrangiel agrees. “We just want to make sure we cover the campaign in the right way. Because there has been this sort of saturation coverage [at other outlets] and it doesn’t really help people understand multiple things about the world.”
Surprisingly perhaps, Tyrangiel sounds skeptical of the recent trend at traditional media organizations such as The New York Times to call out certain candidates for falsehoods and even bald-faced lies in their presumably straight news reports.
“This is a completely unanticipated election in some ways,” he says. “I think people are trying to make judgments on the fly every day. Sometimes those judgments seem right. Sometimes they seem a little reactive. We’re not interested in being ideological or one side or the other. We’re interested in being truthful. We’re interested in deepening people’s understanding.”
Tyrangiel adds: “I’m a little bit surprised by the degree to which traditional campaign reporters are giving their opinions on social media. We talked about that with our own staff, and we say that nobody’s looking to you for your opinion, they’re looking to you for your reporting.”
Yet despite Vice News Tonight’s ambition to redefine news and revolutionize the way it’s consumed, and despite its high-tech luster—delivering interactive, touch-screen options to coveted Generation Y viewers watching on their smartphones and tablets—the show is, in some ways, a throwback to TV’s nascent 1940s, when the NBC Television Newsreel, for one, presented an anchorless broadcast featuring just film and narration.
There is, in the end, nothing new under the sun—although Tyrangiel, at age 44, a product of old media, says he’s still feeling the shock of innovation and youthful dynamism after nearly a year at Vice headquarters in Brooklyn.
“Of course, the atmosphere is different attitudinally,” he says. “The place is vastly more diverse, ethnically and gender wise” than Time or, for that matter, Bloomberg. “There are certainly more tattoos and more beards. And there’s a little bit less entropy, to be honest. People have not yet made their careers. People are not yet worn down or cynical. They come in really energized—and that’s refreshing.”