HBO’s Vice News Tonight Is Doing Something Right

Photo: HBO

HBO’s Vice News Tonight is trying to reinvent a particular wheel: the nightly, half-hour, general-interest newscast that covers a wide variety of topics. It’s going about it in a new way, or trying to. The early consensus seems to be that it’s a shiny new wrapper on an old idea. Reviews of Monday night's premiere were mostly favorable but complained that the segments were too short or generally not deep enough, and that the entire thing had a fragmented, superficial quality. Over at The Hollywood Reporter, Daniel Fienberg called the premiere "a string of little amuse-bouches to whet appetites for full meals available online," while the New York Times' Mike Hale said it offers a "capsule" version of Vice's long-form reporting but "lacked the atmosphere and style of Vice’s actual long-form work."

These and other complaints are accurate if you view the show as a self-contained entity that’s meant to stand alone, as the broadcast networks’ nightly newscasts have done for nearly 70 years. That’s tempting to do if you grew up in an era of more linear TV journalism that was more segment-driven; if you’re judging it in comparison to, say, NBC Nightly News or PBS News Hour or Nightline, Vice News Tonight feels undernourished and distracted. Monday night’s premiere cut its most interesting segments (Glenn Beck saying why he wasn’t a Donald Trump supporter; the Wells Fargo phony-account scandal; an Alabama prison riot as described by an inmate Skyping from solitary confinement) short just as they seemed to be building toward creating a story or an experience as opposed to an impression. Some Tuesday segments felt truncated as well, in particular an interview with former Ohio Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who told Vice News co-founder Shane Smith that he respected Hillary Clinton even though he disagreed with her, but that he was voting for Donald Trump because he’s the Republican candidate. If you’re going to send a crew to hang out with Boehner, you might as well hang out with him and paint a portrait of his personality and daily routine; otherwise, why not just email him some basic questions and publish the answers on your website?

The series is certainly not lacking Vice’s signature personalities-and-graphics-driven reporting, memorably spoofed in The Onion’s “Edge” videos and in the Documentary Now! episode “Dronez: The Hunt for El Chingon.” (“The world is nuts,” intones Dronez’s publisher-narrator, played by Jack Black. “No one knows what’s gonna happen next. But whatever goes down, we’ll be there, keepin’ a close eye on all the madness.”) Unafraid to embrace its own caricature, Vice News gussies up data dumps with fast edits and screen-filling text and charts; moves from one subject to the next with transitions that seem aggressively modern at the moment, but will seem hilariously dated in a few years (thumbnail images “swipe left” in the manner of a dating app); and sometimes makes Vice reporters or local journalists into the story rather than just concentrating on the story itself (as in a Tuesday segment about the anti-drug vigilantism in the Philippines, which featured a traumatized news photographer as a central character). To be fair, though, that last tic is not hugely different from 60 Minutes and 20/20 building their brands around the problematic idea of “reporter as hero” in the ’70s; Vice just loses the stentorian self-importance and encourages reporters to take a more colloquial approach in addressing the viewer (sometimes to the point of self-parody — as Tuesday’s segment on the Samsung-Apple patent case, which found correspondent Nellie Bowles telling the viewer, “And just what is the state of patent law? Super old!”).

Still, I doubt the series is aiming to be all-encompassing, or even entirely satisfying on its own terms. It feels more like the TV equivalent of a homepage inviting viewers to visit Vice News’ website or “expand” on certain stories or facts through their app. That’s what Vice gets out of the program: a portal on a major, old-school TV platform, directing traffic back to their own platforms. Many viewers who watch the series via cable TV from their living-room couches might be Vice first-timers: According to Nielsen data, 55 percent of the people watching the Vice News Tonight premiere were over 50.

What HBO gets from the series is a dedicated, five-nights-a-week program that stimulates curiosity without demanding an hour or 90 minutes of the viewer’s time (as long-form work does), and — perhaps most important, from a network programming standpoint — gives HBO viewers who watch in the old-fashioned way, on a television set, another reason to just leave HBO on their screens until the next movie or scripted series or documentary comes on, instead of clicking away to see what’s happening on other channels. The program is splitting the difference between the old way of watching TV, which was all about the schedule or “lineup” as well as loyalty to a particular venue, and the new way, which is more fragmented, on-demand-oriented, and impulse-driven. And the program seems be leaning rather aggressively into the notion of news as “content” that leads the viewer to still more content, rather than pretending that we still live in 1996, when TV news saw itself as a stand-alone means of telling people what was happening in the world.

As such, Vice News Tonight is an intriguing effort — not new, exactly, but newish. The “hangin’ out doin’ journalism” approach is easy to mock, but this new program is engaging and smart. It explains complex concepts — such as patent law, and the basic elements of the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act — in plain language and useful images. And the show’s news crews already seem to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time to record milestone moments in peoples’ lives. Last night, we got to see the reaction of Amanda Nguyen, the 24-year-old rape survivor behind the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act, to news of the bill’s passage. The segment on the vigilante drug killings in the Philippines included a heartbreaking interview with a murder victim’s widow who said her husband was not a drug user and was likely targeted for revenge by police because he’d filed a brutality complaint. The crew interviewed her at her husband’s memorial service; a white casket with flowers on the lid was visible in the background. I’ve set my DVR to record Vice News — something I haven’t done with a nightly newscast in years.