The Jaundiced Eyeball

Your Media Future: Cheesy and Skeezy

Chris Lehmann   March 03, 2016
Stay tuned for a message from our sponsored content. / Leigh Wolf

Stay tuned for a message from our sponsored content. / Leigh Wolf

For decades, American parents and authority figures have fretted over how the goddamn kids in their lives might be induced to pull themselves out of TV’s stupefying thrall and start really living. Now, however, media worthies are feverishly trying the opposite tack: to get our cyber-savvy, platform-proficient young people to bask once more in the boobtoob’s deathly blue glow.

Yes, “millennials”—as we understand they’re called—are the target audiences for two new TV startups, Jon Steinberg’s Cheddar network, which will specialize in business news reported from the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and Vice Media’s fledgling cable network, Viceland, which will apparently broadcast Vice’s easily lampooned roster of international muckraking dispatches alongside a torrent of native ads championing the youthful authenticity of the skeezy Vice brand.

Both startups, in other words, are breathtaking exercises in generational cynicism, borne of a vast cultural armada of lazy theorizing about who millennials are, and what it is they think they want—and, more important to the media business, what they can be made to think they want.

There’s no question that a great deal is at stake in such calculated feints at the youth market. With traditional media hemorrhaging audiences at an alarming clip, the land rush is on for the definitive platform for inviting millennial-themed content. And since streamed video is one of the proven crowdpleasers across our dizzying array of digital hosting devices, it’s not as crazy as it might initially sound for media entrepreneurs to throw money at the production of streamable video footage.

Of the two, Steinberg’s poorly named (and even more poorly logo’ed) Cheddar project is the most straightforward—which is to say, the crassest. Recall that the last great fusion of dairy products and investing lore was Spencer Johnson’s idiotic nineties management tract Who Moved My Cheese?—a work that earnestly treated bewildered, under-motivated, and discontented workers as easily manipulated experimental lab rats. It’s not clear that Steinberg has adopted Johnson’s condescending fable as a direct inspiration for his network’s business model—though the conspicuous chunk of Swiss cheese (not cheddar) prominently featured in both projects would suggest so. But regardless of whether he imagines his prospective viewership as an army of malleable rodents, Steinberg, former chief of BuzzFeed and the Daily Mail, clearly thinks they can be wooed by sheer force of nonsignifying jargon. As he explained to Business Insider, “the way to go after CNN or MSNBC or traditional cable news is to start with business news because, increasingly, business news is culture. It’s how we live our lives, and it’s how we’re changing our view of the world.”

Riiight. Because “business news” is so receptive to new ideas and criticism—and not at all captive to the blinkered ideological worldview of its readership. And its young leaders are so dynamically cultured. That had to be why so many young voters rallied to former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina’s tragically abortive presidential bid and not to the tired old panaceas peddled by some doddering Vermont socialist!

Admittedly, there is a kind of inadvertent evil marketing genius behind the idea of promiscuously channeling the images of hedge fund maestros and private equity gurus into the smartphones, Rokus, and laptops of precariously employed, debt-strapped young Americans. Come the revolution, they’ll be much better positioned than your average John Steinbeck protagonist to answer the age-old plaint of our casually dispossessed masses: “Who can we shoot?”

But if Steinberg’s project represents a middle-aged media executive’s sketchy understanding of what a young person looks for in the mediasphere, then surely the edgy lords of Viceland know how to engage with the kids. O.K., the founding members of the Vice politburo are by now in their forties, and the company’s now bankrolled by the swinging eighty-something trendspotter Rupert Murdoch. But the mystic bond tethering Vice content to a bored, stoned, and testosterone-addled corps of freespending eighteen- to thirty-four-year-olds is an article of widespread faith among media watchers, and surely the key to Vice media’s absurdly high market valuations.

But here’s the thing: for all its alleged punk-rock brio, the Vice model is less about any three-chords-and-the-truth model of investigative journalism than it’s about the claustral lifestyle-marketing stratagems of old-school media baronies. That’s why Murdoch fell under its spell—and more important, it’s why Vice Media maintains its own in-house native advertising and sponsored content division.

And “native advertising”—i.e., the disingenuous pimping of ad content as though it were actual news—will be the calling card of the Viceland cable network, by the looks of things. As Wall Street Journal media reporter Keach Hagey previews the look and feel of Viceland, it doesn’t conjour the fearless energy of a millennially minded “60 Minutes” so much as the terminally hungover ambience of the final day of an over-branded trade show:

Within a year, Viceland is aiming for roughly half its advertising inventory to be made up of “native” ads—ads packaged to look like editorial content and keep audiences from tuning out. Often made by Vice itself, these spots will frequently be longer than a typical 30-second ad and will be tailored specifically for the network, whose other owner, A+E, is jointly owned by Walt Disney Co. and Hearst Corp. “We are trying to displace the clutter by injecting some humanity and authenticity,” said Eddy Moretti, co-president of Viceland and Vice’s chief creative officer.

Ah yes: authenticity, that endlessly exploitable, bottomlessly phony watchword of all things advertising. Authenticity would appear to be the great organizing conceit of this particular Viceland set piece, as Hagey anatomizes it in all its mind-stretching Borgesian glory: “One custom ad on Viceland paid for by Unilever will feature a Vice employee talking about a digital-ad campaign she came up with for the company’s TRESemme hair-product brand.”

Got that? It will be a native ad about a Vice knowledge worker sharing her hard-earned life wisdom . . . about creating a native ad. In other words, it will be as faithful to the core meaning of authenticity as whatever this week’s lead Donald Trump escapade will prove to be. As for “clutter,” employing the self-hymning creativity of an on-the-make media professional as the basis for a real-life product testimonial makes Matthew Barney look like Ernie Bushmiller by comparison.

Still, this is fairly benign fluff compared to the other programming Viceland has in store. Just consider this already market-tested concept, as Hagey again stoutly notes:

Bank of America Corp. had previously sponsored the Vice News Web series “Business of Life,” which covered topics like why college was so expensive. Bank of America, which supplied relevant content on financial literacy that runs adjacent to the shows, will be bringing the series to Viceland in a few months.

Because, of course, it could never be that Bank of America is a central reason why the necessities of a putatively comfortable life are so expensive. (It so happens that BofA, like many big lenders, recently shed its student-loan portfolio, though it’s not clear whether that will be a prelude to other great feats of securitization to come.) It would seem, at any rate, that the institution’s status as the most heavily fined predatory lender in human history might warrant some skepticism on the part of the impressionable young Vice consumer. But that, after all, is the beauty of native advertising: it permits the ego-damaged predator in question to massage its preferred public image as a financial-literacy helpmeet. The BofA loans desk gets to feel young and hip again, Viceland cashes some premium ad fees, and all is well in this, the best of all perennially youthful consumer republics.

It bears recalling, amid this cynical debauching of journalistic ethics, that Vice was never really envisioned as a newsgathering operation in the first place. It was, rather, a consumer brand, plastered on everything from a line of fashion to a shitty indie-rock label. So in arriving at a maximally leveraged form of sponsored content, it’s arguably just fulfilling its preordained market destiny. In other words: Vice found its cheese long ago, and won’t at all mind taking a helping or two of yours into the bargain.

Chris Lehmann is senior editor of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.