For those who thought AOL might be shifting away from big content plays and heading into pure ad tech, the media company proved this week it still has plenty in store for digitally savvy audiences.
Announcing a licensing distribution deal with NBCUniversal and a hefty slate of original and co-produced programming, the media company reiterated its commitment to creating original content at its Digital Content NewFronts presentation at New York's 4 World Trade Center Tuesday evening.
"There was a perception that we were overinvested in [ad tech] compared to other places," AOL chief marketing officer Allie Kline said before the event. "I don't think that's been the case. Huffington Post is still the largest investment and acquisition we've made. We have 20-plus O&O [owned and operated] brands, 2,000 premium content publishers we maintain relationships with, and about 26 shows we're releasing."
To drive that point home, AOL president Bob Lord and NBCU ad sales and client partnerships chairman Linda Yaccarino announced a new partnership on stage, which will also extend into co-produced content. AOL On will get the rights to stream NBCU content from its broadcast networks, cable channels and digital networks on mobile, desktop and 16 over-the-top platforms. (Yes, this means clips and segments from Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Watch What Happens: Live are headed to AOL.)
The move to add NBCU shows is part of AOL's Content 365 strategy, which AOL head of video Dermot McCormack explained as the company's plan to make content of all shapes and sizes. AOL said its AOL On streaming video platform averages 1 billion multi-platform video views a month and houses more than 1 million premium AOL original and partner videos.
"Digital has a masterful way of reaching the consumer," McCormack said.
Similar to last year, AOL rolled out a star-studded lineup of premium content, touted by stars like James Franco and Steve Buscemi and athletes including New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, Jacksonville Jaguars tight end Julius Thomas and former football star Deion Sanders. Kline explained all AOL series will fall into one of three formats to fit buyers' needs: short, snackable content; eight- to 22-minute episodic storytelling; and, new this year, long-form film and documentaries.
"We see people looking to buy quite differently than they are historically," Klein said. "They are much more focused on audience, and much less focused on 'I want to own this piece.' They're saying 'I'm really interested in the brand association with this piece of content,' and 'I also want to make sure I can scale to have maximum audience reach.'"
New programming includes:
- Rise – AOL's first morning show
- 2 Point Lead – A short-form comedy series made for sports fans and hosted by comedian Yannis Pappas
- A 10-documentary series created by 10 different directors who are actively fixing what's wrong with the world today in conjunction with the Huffington Post 10th anniversary
- Journey to the Draft – A documentary series on the 2015 NFL draft that follows three top prospects as they prepare for the pros
- Beyond the Horizon with Jared Leto – An interview series in which the actor will speak to leaders in science, art, technology and politics
- Act Like a Musician – A series in which Hollywood stars will learn how to be rock stars, with the help of a music mentor
- One and For All – A longform documentary created by Makers on the progress women have made over the last 20 years, seemingly tied to the 2016 election
- Two series co-produced by Derek Jeters' The Players' Tribune, including How It Happened, an animated series retelling famous athlete stories, and Thursday Sports Show, a behind-the-scenes talk show hosted by "professional fan" Ben Lyons
In addition, AOL announced that James Franco's Making a Scene and Steve Buscemi's Park Bench were renewed for Season 2. It also touted that it had already found brand partners for Act Like a Musician, Making a Scene Season 2, Behind the Horizon, 2 Point Lead and AOL Build, the company's fan-led interview series.
"I think the single largest change in media is going to happen this year," AOL CEO Tim Armstrong said at the event.