The Case of AOL’s Missing Programming Initiatives

NEW YORK Last April, AOL gathered a group of prominent media buyers in New York to present five ambitious programming initiatives for 2007-08 at an upfront-like event dubbed First Look. Now, many of these same buyers are wondering when—even if—they will get their second and third looks at these concepts.

After an intense round of selling last spring, buyers said AOL has been curiously quiet regarding its planned original shows, which include the second season of the Mark Burnett vehicle “Gold Rush” and “iLand,” a game show produced by Endemol (Deal or No Deal), in which contestants will compete to win their own island.

“It’s been radio silence,” said one buyer, leading some to question whether the portal is planning to scale back its plans in light of recent lackluster ad growth, as revealed in August during parent company Time Warner’s second-quarter earnings statement. There has been speculation recently that AOL will face layoffs and budget cuts as a result of its latest numbers.

Richard Greenfield, an analyst at Pali Research who issued a critical report on Sept. 6 that urged Time Warner to sell AOL, said, “Huge cuts are looming.”

While Greenfield did not specify where these cuts would fall, one rumor had the long-running series “AOL Unscripted,” “AOL Sessions” and “AOL Coaches” taking the hit. Company officials denied those shows are facing cuts, saying that redesigns were planned for several channels. A portal representative also

declined to comment on ad sales or timing for its First Look properties, noting only that all plans were still in motion.

Yet AOL has already pushed the second season of “Gold Rush” from this past

summer to sometime next year, and the company’s lack of follow-through has some buyers scratching their heads. “Our planning group is waiting to hear what is going to happen with AOL,” said Craig Daitch, vp and director of interactive planning at PHD. “When you have something that is really exciting, [you’d think you’d] be right at our doorstep.”

Of course, given that the First Look programs were designed to serve as highly integrated branded-entertainment vehicles, landing advertisers was unlikely to happen at TV upfront speed.

“With these types of big events, the idea is one thing, but making it right for clients, that’s a long conversation,” said Sarah Baehr, vp, media, at Avenue A/Razorfish.

Baehr praised AOL’s sales teams for presenting its big tent-pole ad buys with customization in mind. But some buyers said after taking meetings with AOL last spring, which often included broadcast and digital buyers, requests for more customized versions of shows like “iLand” or “Million Dollar Bill” weren’t met, while costs were also an obstacle (AOL was seeking commitments in the $5 million range).

And while many buyers credited AOL with presenting shows that leverage the Web’s interactivity, others complained that the offerings felt dated. “These programs were interesting as concepts, but they felt a little too much like legacy media,” said Scott Symonds, executive media director at AKQA.

These days, buyers also have increasing opportunities to secure sponsorships directly with digital content producers, subverting the traditional online distributors entirely, noted Carrie Frolich, senior partner, online media practice lead, MEC Interaction. And while Frolich gave AOL credit for its willingness to experiment, she added that not one of the big Web media players has proven it knows how to manufacture a hit show. “In general, with original programming on the Web, it’s difficult to sell without a clear, compelling reason for consumers to check it out,” she said. “That’s an area that’s been lacking in all the portals’ original programs.”

Frolich also wondered whether such thinking makes sense in such a fragmented medium: “Maybe we shouldn’t be looking for a Grey’s Anatomy.”