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AOL Stands Out Amidst Tepid NewFront Market Web video continues to surge, but big content deals lag

Seventeen NewFronts and a few months later, it’s fair to say that the market for original Web video series has been quiet. The TV upfront, while not spectacular, was once again solid. Tales of dollars being pulled out of TV budgets are fading and the flow of industry open letters has stopped.

“I have not heard much at all," said Andrea Kerr Redniss, chief activation officer, Media Storm. "The digital marketplace is just not at a point where widespread upfronts are required across most sites."

"I'm not surprised," said a top digital buyer. "I think the whole thing is an overblown, overhyped idea. As I have said many times, digital is not bought the same way as TV."

But wait, there’s hope. AOL has sold at least seven of its original shows the company introduced during its NewFront last May, including a recent deal with Citi for the Sarah Jessica Parker-helmed documentary City Ballet. AmEx committed to sponsoring the business-centric Funded during AOL’s NewFront last May. Since then, Disney has nabbed the Hank Azaria project Fatherhood; Chase has grabbed Taste Makers; and Verizon has committed to sponsor Future Stars Here. Per sources, AOL has brought in a few tens of millions following its NewFront as talks with brands continue on several yet-to-debut series, with most individual deals in the seven-figure range.

Seven shows have launched to date, with varied success. Nicole Richie’s #CandidlyNicole is the breakout hit at the moment; the show, built upon Richie’s Twitter persona, has generated 14 million views across 20 episodes per AOL, attracting 3.4 unique viewers, putting it in the range of some unscripted cable hits.

Other standouts include Hardwired, a tech show hosted by YouTube star iJustine, which has garnered 6.7 million views and 1.5 million viewers; and Anthony Eats America (starring Anthony Anderson) which has reeled in 2.3 million views and 1.2 million uniques across a dozen episodes.

AOL says the key to its success to date has been laying the seeds early and emphasizing the exclusivity of its offerings.

“When it came to packaging shows and bringing them to the market, we were very purposeful,” said Erika Nardini, CMO, AOL Advertising. “We had 20 meetings before the NewFronts and meetings for three weeks after.”

"These were C-level meetings," added Ran Harnevo, AOL's svp of video. "And we actively recruited broadcast buyers. Plus, you have to have reach and scale on top of shows. Nobody is going to just buy a show. It's about packages, just like in TV."

Overall, AOL’s video efforts have been on a roll, which has either helped buoy its original series or can be credited for helping initiate it. In August, AOL reached 85.4 million unique viewers, per comScore, the second straight month AOL finished second in the category to YouTube. That’s up from 74.8 million in July.

Otherwise, it's been crickets. Yahoo did sign on Energizer to integrate its brand into the Ed Helms comedy Tiny Commando. "The humor and innovation behind the Tiny Commando comedy is a natural fit, and the integration within the show creates a natural brand experience for consumers,” Brad Harrison, vp of marketing for Energizer North America.

But amazingly, Yahoo’s celebrity-heavy lineup seems to have gone undersold. Adweek was able to stream episodes of Losing It With John Stamos, We Need Help, Ghost Ghirls and The Fuzz with zero ads.

“We’ve had positive feedback from brand and agency partners out of this year’s NewFronts," said Yahoo's vp of video sales Andrew Snyder. "We are creating solutions for new and existing partners ... The number of brands making first-time upfront commitments validates our strategy.”

“Outside of AOL, I don’t think a ton has been moving,” said Margaret Czeisler, national lead, strategic alliances at Razorfish. "During the NewFronts, there was a ton of video out there but not a lot of premium. I was really impressed with the stuff from AOL. All of it was so much ahead of everybody else."

It may also just be taking everybody longer than we might have expected—another key reason why Web video isn't TV. "The runway to get digital programs going is longer than buying TV spots," said Adam Kasper, chief media officer, Havas Media. "I am seeing some activity with the NewFronts vendors and publishers around trying to generate custom big ideas. They are using the NewFronts as launching pads for larger conversations, which is the right way to do it."

YouTube didn't sell individual shows at its NewFront; rather the company emphasized selling a younger generation that consumes content different. The company recently signed Burger King to sponsor a fantasy football channel while T-Mobile sponsored the Coachella livestream Maybelline and YouTube also partnered on a fashion-themed Web series, Maybelline Recreate the Runway.

"We've seen exciting growth in both the size and number of upfront commitments from clients and agencies encompassing YouTube, display and programmatic," said a YouTube spokesperson. "We’ve already seen many of these new collaborations come to life for our viewers and are in the process of launching even more this fall." Still many advertisers are also electing to work with YouTube networks like Fullscreen or directly with individual creators.

Vloggers remixing high-fashion looks found on the catwalk partnered with StyleHaul.
Windex worked with YouTube creators for brand integration into their videos to promote their Touch Up Cleaner product.

While a big NewFronts market hasn't materialized, in part because prime-time TV is still much desired (witness the strong upfront), some see an opportunity for Web video players to steal from second-tier cable. "Brands may very well move money from scatter across low-rated, fragmented cable drivel, but at the same time, they're going bananas to get into Breaking Bad," said Eric Bader, CMO of RadiumOne.

Might they be going bananas for Richie at some point soon? Harnevo hinted that #candidlynicole could graduate to TV.

“She has an audience and can activate it for us,” he said. “We have an editorial voice. This is who we want to be. Unscripted, personalities, authentic digital native talent." Does that mean that scripted shows like Little Women Big Cars are not the focus going forward? Harnevo didn't say. He did not say that AOL is seeing solid viewing via Connected TVs and hinted that an AOL Apple TV app could be in the cards down the road. “That’s all I can say about that.”



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