Why Viceland Doesn’t Want You to See Its Ratings

By withholding numbers, Vice’s new network can dodge critics without affecting advertising

When Vice’s new cable channel launches later this month, it will offer shows from the likes of Ellen Page, Eddie Huang and Action Bronson. But it will not offer any transparency about who is watching them.

Ratings for Viceland — which is co-owned by A+E Networks and set to debut Feb. 29 — will not be publicly available for the network’s first six months. Nielsen will measure Viceland’s viewership, but neither Nielsen nor the network will release the numbers to the media.

Viceland can still share the numbers with advertisers to persuade them to buy commercials. But because Viceland produces all its own programming, cable advertising is only part of its plan to make money.

“They’ll live on our website, on iTunes, on Netflix, on Hulu,” Spike Jonze, the network’s co-president, told TheWrap of Viceland’s shows. “There will be pieces on Snapchat. However you absorb content, we’ll have something to say.”

Hiding the early numbers makes sense for Viceland. It takes time for new networks to find their footing, even when they benefit from a known brand. The Oprah Winfrey Network and Esquire Network were battered by headlines about low ratings shortly after they launched. Nielsen will sometimes even discourage new networks from sharing ratings until they can establish themselves.

“It’s not unprecedented for new networks to receive Nielsen’s ratings data as part of an internal preview period for up to six months,” Peter Bradbury, Nielsen’s managing director of national TV client solutions, told TheWrap. “New clients often choose to keep ratings data and insights internal in order to best understand overall performance.”

Sundance TV, for example, did not report ratings until it adopted an ad-supported model in 2013.

But Viceland isn’t just any new client. Taking over the channel space occupied by A+E’s H2, the network will be in 71 million homes from day one. That’s roughly the same number as IFC, NFL Network and WGN America. Viceland’s new programming will be mounted on a significant and valuable platform.

A+E and Vice finalized a deal in October to rebrand and reprogram H2 as a Vice network, with A+E maintaining majority ownership of the channel and Vice taking creative control. The deal increased A+E’s stake in Vice to roughly 20 percent. A+E hopes to tap into a young, digital-savvy audience that has been notoriously hard for television programmers to reach.

Any disappointing early ratings would raise questions about whether Vice and A+E succeeded.

Streaming services Netflix and Amazon also withhold viewership data, but they can make the case that ratings aren’t as important to them, since they make their money from subscriptions, not ads during shows. That hasn’t saved them from industry criticism.

“The problem with Netflix has always been that they won’t give you the numbers, so we can’t know how many people are watching these shows,” Alan Wurtzel, president research and media development for NBCUniversal, told reporters last month at the Television Critics Association winter press tour. “It’s all about what the perception is.”

By withholding ratings for now, Viceland is attempting to manage perception. The network hopes that by the time it starts to report numbers, products such as Nielsen’s total audience rating, which measures viewership across TV and digital, will have gained popularity and acceptance.

And, of course, it hopes its ratings will be good.

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