There’s a lot of hot air being published over at The Australian this morning about the joint venture between SBS and Vice Media. Under the deal, SBS 2 will be rebranded as “SBS Viceland” when the new channel starts on November 15.
Quoting Maurice Newman, the ring-in media expert and former ABC chair, the Oz’s Darren “Lurch” Davidson and Joe Kelly reported this morning that the new channel was being seen as evidence SBS had lost its way:
“Launching on November 15, SBS Viceland will replace SBS 2, giving the broadcaster access to a catalogue of lifestyle-oriented content aimed at US pay-TV audiences that includes documentaries and reality series about underground comedians, cannabis culture, and illegal economic activity. Show titles include Weediquette, and Balls Deep.”
It’s a pity Lurch didn’t wait a day before fulminating — if he had, he might have found an actual fact-based reason to disparage the new venture. Viceland’s US and UK channels have proven to be out-and-out flops in the early days of broadcast.
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Nielsen ratings for the US channel were released last month, after an unrated six-month initial period to allow the audience to settle down. Viceland’s viewership of 56,000 in a target group of 18- to 49-year-olds represented a 67% year-on-year prime-time drop compared with H2, the previous channel in that slot for A+E Networks (which owns 10% of Vice), which had targeted an older audience. Even though cable or pay TV channels do not depend on huge audiences like free-to-air TV does, 56,000 viewers in a market as large as the US (with tens of millions of potential viewers in that prime demographic) is laughable.
In Britain, live viewing of Viceland UK (which is broadcast on Sky UK), in the prime-time slot of 9pm to 11pm is reported to have peaked at less than 14,000 in the first two weeks after its September launch. UK ratings show several days where there were no viewers in the two hour period. None at all.
The performance in the UK and US led London-based Enders Analysis (a leading UK media analytics group) to point out overnight:
“A lacklustre UK launch of Viceland — the new, multinational linear television channel from youth-skewing, gonzo-esqe Vice Media — followed six months after a similarly underwhelming entrance into the US. It is surely early days, but despite strong content, initial results were predictable, considering the challenges. The response by Vice, that viewing figures are essentially immaterial to its plans, was expected but deviated from earlier, bullish sentiments. Beyond linear viewing, as an intended mass ‘content generator’ to power the greater Vice online network, Viceland may answer a fundamental question: Is Vice and its distinctive content really what the kids want?”
And an Enders analyst said in a report: “When you get down to very small viewerships, it’s never going to be exactly accurate, but zero means zero. The big takeaway is that almost no one is watching.” Viceland UK says it is “extremely premature” to judge it on early ratings, and that Viceland US is “growing week by week”. Of course, that’s a sight more cautious than the utterances of Vice’s CEO Shane Smith back when the channel was launched: he said it would bring “millennials back to television”.
Unlike in the US, SBS2 already targets the young demographic Viceland does, so maybe there will be less friction from the shift. And the channel already lags in the ratings. While the channel’s marquee program The Feed has an enviable online reach, when it comes to TV, it can’t get viewers to switch on. Last week, SBS Food Network (SBS3) just outrated SBS 2 with a share of 0.9% to 0.8% of metro viewing. So far this week, the Food Network has continued that with higher ratings on Sunday night (0.7% to SBS3 and 0.5% for SBS 2), Monday night, (0.9% to 0.8%) and Tuesday night with 1.1% to 0.7%.