On Tuesday (Apr. 24) AOL looked to maximize the attention the Digital Content NewFronts—a string to TV-upfront-styled events—have been receiving over the past couple months. Case in point: the portal used its event to announce not just new content but also new properties including a cross-platform video hub, iPad and mobile apps and even a fantasy league.
AOL chairman and CEO Tim Armstrong didn’t make an appearance until late into Tuesday’s event, but when he did show up on stage it was to announce the AOL On Network, underscoring the video platform’s importance to the company’s strategy going forward. The product was born out of AOL’s acquisition of online video distribution company 5min Media in September 2010 and is overseen by former 5min cofounder Ran Harnevo who serves as svp of AOL On and manned the bulk of the network’s presentation.
The AOL On Network consists of 14 channels siloed into verticals such as News, Entertainment, Tech, Parenting and Travel. The network will stream videos across the Web on various non AOL sites, as well as through mobile and tablet sites and apps as well as connected devices like Google TV and Yahoo Connected TV. Harnevo said during his presentation that AOL has partnered with 11 connected device manufacturers including Samsung, Sony, Roku and Boxee.
In addition to the distribution network, AOL has created an online hub AOL On, launching the site on Tuesday. The crux of the site is that it will comb through AOL’s library of more than 320,000 videos and curate “the most relevant,” as a company press release put it (echoing Yahoo's launch last fall of the video hub Yahoo Screen).
While some sort of programming would seem to be a basic function of any video distribution site’s home page, AOL will brings celebrities into the curation mix, with the likes of Heidi Klum, former Entourage star Adrian Grenier and fashion designer Rachel Roy culling and sharing playlists. As last year’s expensive acquisition of the Huffington Post proved, AOL is big on playing Internet tour guide. “The Internet needs to be programmed, and good programming comes down to incredible curation,” Armstrong said on stage.
AOL’s svp and head of sales strategy, marketing and partnerships Janet Balis told Adweek that brands, or talent acting on behalf of a brand, will be able to curate content on the network. As far as traditional advertising goes, brands and their agencies will be able to buy inventory on the network by channel or by audience (as identified by first-party and third-party data providers), and Balis said those buys will span all of the network’s distribution platforms.
Not that Armstrong turning away from content. AOL showed off a slate of new original video series from the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Sex and the City producer Amy Harris, Marie Claire editor and Project Runway judge Nina Garcia and partnership with Michael Eisner’s studio Vuguru. The company will also air a talk series starring Twitter cofounder Biz Stone interviewing high-profile names like President Barack Obama. And keeping with curated approach, AOL has developed “New Hollywood Films,” which was developed by Emmy-nominated producer Christine Vachon and will feature digital short films directed by young celebrities such as Elizabeth Olsen (sister of Ashley and Mary-Kate) and Kevin Jonas of the Jonas Brothers.
The AOL On Network—and the content it’ll feature—was hands down Tuesday’s big news for the New York-based digital media company, but Armstrong and co. had a few other things up their sleeves. Balis teased ur + 1, a social gaming platform disguised as a fantasy sports league. When the product goes live during next year’s awards season, users will be able to create rosters of celebrities and gain points based on the level of coverage the celebs receive from AOL’s properties. Users will need to refresh their teams every seven days, but will have strong incentive to do so. Prizes will include events as an AOL Music Sessions performance in a fan's backyard.
But AOL left it to Arianna Huffington herself to show off its new mobile apps. Not surprisingly she started with the iPad app “Huffington.” (the period is included). Huffington Post executive editor Tim O’Brien will spearhead the tablet magazine, which will aggregate content from HuffPo’s 66 sections that publish 1,500 stories per day—all in a format designed to capitalize on the iPad’s lean-back experience. “It’s the difference between a one-night stand and a long getaway,” said Huffington in comparing the content sites and the app. Balis added that AOL will be working on a custom basis with brands to create ads for the app and that those discussions are in their early stages.
“We’re looking at very creative ad insertions that will be throughout the magazine. It starts with as simple as a fully glossy, what we might call a digital full-page, all the way through fully interactive applications with 360-degree views of products and information,” Balis said.
Huffington also mentioned the Huffington Post Streaming Network which is scheduled in June but didn’t offer any new details before the president and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Media Group started in on the division’s new mobile app. That product, dubbed, GPS for the Soul, goes live in two months. It will read users’ heart rates, blood pressure and breathing rate, and then will prescribe measures users can take to reduce stress, such as playing music, displaying family pictures or leading breathing exercises.
Finally Huffington talked about dedicated sections that will be scaled up so more brands can use it to upload content related to causes with which they want to be identified. As an example, she pointed Global Motherhood, a section launched earlier this year with Johnson & Johnson focusing on pregnancy and childbirth.
Here’s a rundown of AOL's new original series:
– “Digital Justice” —A five-episode, real-life CSI running on the AOL On Tech channel and HuffPost Crime hosted by U.S. Army Special Forces Master Sergeant Terry Schappert, who looks at the technology used by various crime prevention units
– “Tiger Beat Entertainment” — An Access Hollywood for teens launching on AOL’s teen site Cambio.com this summer and is executive produced by Jennifer Lopez
– “Next Door Hero” — Reality series set to premiere this summer on AOL.com, AOL On and HuffPo, Hero will spotlight average Joes and Janes who’ve done things like save a school bus full of children (true story, not a cliché)
– “Little Women Big Cars” — Ensemble comedy from Vuguru premieres May 7 on the AOL On Parenting channel with a cast that includes Amy Yasbeck, Ed Begley Jr. and Antonio Sabato Jr.
– “Fetching” — Vuguru-developed dramedy about a dog-loving woman written by Sex and the City producer Amy Harris that will premiere June 18 on the AOL On Relationships channel
– AOL is also developing a fashion-and-lifestyle makeover series with Marie Claire editor and Project Runway judge Nina Garcia; the series will run on the AOL On Style channel as well as Styleist, HuffPost Style and HuffPost Women. No premiere date has been set