In a bid to attract younger viewers to its TV channels and digital services, Bell Media Inc. has acquired the rights to a library of Vice Media programming as well as new shows airing on its U.S. network, Viceland – just months after Rogers Media Inc. ended its $100-million joint venture with Vice.
Rogers ended its deal with the New York-based media company in January, taking Viceland off the air in Canada and transferring its interest in a Canadian production studio back to Vice. According to sources, the TV station was losing money, struggled with low ratings and did not meet targets for subscriber growth, even though it was carried by all major cable and satellite companies in Canada.
Bell’s deal, announced Thursday, is structured differently: Rather than resurrecting the Viceland channel in Canada, Bell will become the exclusive broadcaster for Viceland programming on its own channels, including Much and MTV Canada, beginning this fall. Vice content will also appear on CraveTV, Bell’s subscription digital streaming service, and on the CTV Super Hub, a soon-to-be-launched streaming option that will require a log-in from TV subscribers for some of its programming (some will be available for free.) Vice programming will also appear on Bell’s mobile app, Snackable TV, which was unveiled this year to draw viewers looking for shorter videos on mobile devices. In addition to new programming, Bell will have the rights to more than 650 hours of previously produced content.
“We feel that we have the digital asset base to really take advantage of the partnership,” Bell Media president Randy Lennox said in an interview.
Vice declined requests for interviews for this story.
While the financial terms of the deal were not disclosed, it will be far less expensive than the one Rogers announced in 2014 under former CEO Guy Laurence. That deal included a commitment of $50-million from each company for Canadian staff to operate the Viceland channel and to build the studio and production facilities in Canada. Rogers spent another $50-million to create Canadian content through that studio.
“It was an experiment. Everyone was focused on digital first and millennials. And it didn’t work,” Colette Watson, senior vice-president of TV and broadcast operations at Rogers, said of the deal in an interview with The Globe and Mail in March. "We were all in on this. It was too big a risk.”
By contrast, Bell will not be operating a separate channel, paying for staff or investing in new facilities, though the company did say it would consider opportunities for co-productions with Vice. Bell announced that it has already commissioned a sequel to the documentary Dopesick, which was produced via a partnership between Vice and CTV’s current affairs show W5 and explored the roots of the opioid crisis in Alberta. In fact, Bell Media’s relationship with Vice began last year, when it announced a deal to broadcast Vice News Tonight and to partner on that documentary.
“In the last, even two years, there has been such an exponential litany of options that to try and take a wholesale channel is not, I think, practical,” Mr. Lennox said. “Whereas taking the best content – and there is a lot of fantastic content – from Viceland and integrating that into our already highly viewed programming seems to me to be a pretty logical next step.”
TV companies have seen the competitive landscape shift significantly in recent years, as streaming services have lured viewers away. The number of households with a TV subscription through cable, satellite or IPTV in Canada has been declining for the past four years. Bell’s response has been to build its own streaming service, CraveTV, and hopes that adding Vice content, which is geared toward younger viewers, will help draw new subscribers there. Hulu, a U.S. streaming service jointly owned by Comcast, Disney, Fox and Time Warner, also signed a licensing deal with Vice, and Mr. Lennox noted that any programming streaming on Hulu in the U.S. will be found on CraveTV in Canada.
“We have very ambitious plans for Crave,” he said.
Vice.com will continue to stream videos on its own site. However, as part of the agreement, any shows that Bell places on digital services requiring a log-in means viewers will have to sign in with proof of a subscription from a Canadian television provider.
One of the factors that drew Bell Media to the deal was confidence in the new leadership at Vice, Mr. Lennox said, and their experience in content creation. Former A+E Networks president and CEO Nancy Dubuc was named CEO of Vice Media in March, as co-founder Shane Smith transitioned into the role of executive chairman. That same month, Dominique Delport, former global managing director of advertising business Havas Group and head of Vivendi Content, was named Vice’s chief revenue officer and president of its international business. And Naveen Prasad, whose experience includes roles with Alliance Films, eOne, and Elevation Pictures, was recently named president of Vice Canada.
“Sure, there’s the [library of] content that exists, but it’s the content they have yet to create that has me the most excited,” Mr. Lennox said. "I do believe that this is the 2.0 of Vice, not just in Canada but worldwide.”