The NewFronts award for boldest attempt to really take on TV goes to: AOL. At least so far.
The Web portal has lined up big names and even bolder claims as it attempts to get advertisers to consider its original shows up against the likes of ABC and Fox. Among the projects in the works for this fall are a documentary series focused on the New York City Ballet produced by Sarah Jessica Parker, an inspiration-focused show co-hosted by Gwyneth Paltrow and Tracy Anderson, and a parenting-themed series created by and starring Hank Azaria.
AOL’s robust, reality-heavy slate will also feature a show built around Nicole Ritchie’s Twitter account (#candidlynicole), a documentary focused on the back stories on sports stars tattoos (My Ink), a food-centric travelogue starring comedian Anthony Anderson (Anthony Eats America) and another cooking series, Now Eat This! Italy with Rocco Dispirito, which will see the celebrity chef descending upon Italian grandmothers while looking to create healthy recipes.
All in all, AOL has 15 original projects slated for this fall, an aggressive push considering the typical Web output. It's clear that the company wants to position itself as a leader in this space.
“The main thing is AOL is positioned to bridge the gap between Web and TV,” Ran Harnevo, svp of AOL Video, told Adweek. “We think we can show there is no substantial difference between the two media when it comes to quality and measurement."
In fact, during the presentation, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong looked to deflect the argument that Web video is a cheap TV knockoff. "The growth in video is the most important trend that we need to pay attention to [on the Internet]. And quality premium Web video is the most scarce thing in the universe," he said.
Harnevo is uber-confident that AOL can approach TV’s quality. He cited AOL’s HD studio, its growing audience for originals via connected TV apps and the fact that HuffPost Live content will now be seen on some cable systems.
On the measurement front, Harnevo acknowledged that the Web’s shortfalls have held the medium back. Therefore, AOL is looking to change that dynamic. The company announced a new partnership with the video infrastructure firm FreeWheel and the media billing/buying platform Mediaocean aimed at helping marketers evaluate Web video campaigns against TV; for example, buyers will be able to view TV and Web campaigns using the same dashboards, workflows and back-end systems.
Besides content and tech plans, AOL also used its NewFronts event to announce a deeper push into branded entertainment—an area that continues to attract major advertiser interest. Essentially, AOL wants to become a one-stop resource for brands looking for production and distribution help for their own content. Per Harnevo, advertisers will be able to turn to AOL’s team of expert producers to churn out original Web video fare, and they’ll then be able to distribute said content across the AOL On syndication network, which generates 724 million videos views each month across 1,700 sites. The initiative, dubbed Be On, has already been tested by several brands.
Getting back to new shows, AOL’s impressive slate cuts across multiple genres. There’s Inspiration Point with Jonathan Adler, featuring the designer and potter sharing life insights; The Sartorialist, in which Scott Schuman chronicles urban style; and Fuego Your Life, featuring the digital bilingual star Sandra Vergara (Sofia’s cousin).
Also on the docket is a documentary series on 17-year-old Nascar star Dylan Kwasniewski (Flat Out), a tech series hosted by YouTube’s iJustine (Hardwired) and a humor/Web-focused series The Future Starts Here.
AOL is promising more new shows in 2014. Regarding the aggressive content outlay, Harnevo took pains to emphasis AOL’s quality and exclusivity. He seemed to be drawing a distinction with YouTube without saying so. “We’re not an open platform," he said. "We’re doubling down on originals. This investment is unprecedented. We pick and chose content. That’s the definition of premium.
"If you really look at what makes advertisers scared of Web video, it was the programming was lost," Harnevo added. "it was all about algorithm."
Advertisers seemed to be buying what AOL was selling. During the event, the CEO announced that his team had actually closed a deal during the presentation. The digital agency Razorfish, in partnership with Digitas and LBi, locked up the business channel on the AOL On Network at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, giving their clients exclusivity on the new AOL series Funded and Acting Disruptive.
Other highlights from AOL's show, which took place at the Farley Post Office building in New York:
-Arianna Huffington reported that HuffPost Live had delivered 51 million views in eight months. The live TV offering, which urges user-participation on a level not seen in original video, has attracted 8,000 readers as guests while generating a million comments to date. "We've created the most social video media experience ever."
-Huffington was joined on stage by Mark Cuban, who while wearing a t-shirt reading 'Live," exhorted the power of live TV in the social media age. "If it's on YouTube, you already missed it, he claimed.
-Alex Winter (Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure) presented clips from a movie AOL has acquired chronicling the rise of Napster in the late 1990s.
-Ad legend Shelly Lazarus spoke about her experience being interviewed for AOL/PBS's joined project Makers, during which she was reminded of an era where female flight attendants had to retire at the age of 32. Lazarus also served as AOL pitchwoman, revealing that Makers averages 1.5 million unique users per month, 48 percent of whom are male.
-A set of common themes emerged among AOL's series slate, including inspirational stories, earnestness and celebrities. For example, Hank Azaria presented some heart-tugging footage of he and his wife learning that their son would be born 10-weeks early; the clip was preceded by a frank Azaria revealing that he had long not wanted to have children.