Inside AOL’s Live Experiment

Anchor auditions, real-time video ads and an attempt at doing cable on the Web

Past the buzzy control room, the group of hopeful audition-awaiting actors, the wannabe news readers and a table of untouched sandwiches, a leggy Taekwondo champion is trying to kick her co-star in the face without exposing her underwear. She fails.

On Take 2, Angel (as she calls herself) guards her skirt as she uncorks an impressive leg kick, just missing her co-anchor Dennis in the head. For effects purposes, he immediately dons a green mask—which on camera will make it look as if Angel took his head off.

It’s day two of the auditions for AOL Anchor Quest, which brought a thousand dreamers to AOL’s studios in New York where they tried out to become AOL's newest on-camera stars—all part of the company's grand experiment in launching live programming and possibly a second full-fledged live network. Just after Angel and Dennis depart, another would-be Kelly Ripa who seriously resembles Anne Hathaway takes her turn reading headlines on a missing boat in New Zealand and the release date for the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey.

In fact, AOL wants to build out a mini cable empire, and it's using live programming as its differentiator in the sea of a bazillion YouTube clips. Last week’s live programming blitz—centered on a very-AOL top-of-the-hour-news and entertainment-headlines show that's in the works—was just the start of something big. But even AOL's top execs are not entirely sure where it’s headed.

To be clear, those execs are certain they are not trying to do HuffPost Live junior. Sure, the year-old HuffPost Live provides tons of learning, not to mention studios, equipment and all that. But AOL Live will be its own thing. Lighter, more Hollywood/celeb focused. Less political wonks doing Skype interviews.

“This has to be differentiated," said Chris Grosso, gm, AOL Homepages. "It has to be AOL."

“We’re going to be trying different forms,” added Susan Lyne, CEO of AOL's Brand Group. Lyne predicted that users will eventually get into the habit of leaving a live AOL player (or players) on in the corner of their screens at work, tuning in and out as content catches their interest. “This is a little groundbreaking. But we don’t know [what the audience is going to take to]. We can still use this to build out a library of on-demand clips, but the live aspect, the idea of the unexpected, is what people are drawn to.”

Last Thursday, AOL Live started off at 10,000 unique viewers and climbed up to 250,000 in total at the conclusion of the four-hour block. At times, the live audience eclipsed some cable shows, said AOL’s corporate communications svp Peter Land. Overall, a thousand people showed up to audition, some camping out in their pajamas or at the local McDonald’s, per AOL execs.

Among the highlights were a Jay-Z impersonator, a middle-aged guitarist in drag and a brief puppy cam interruption.

As with HuffPost Live, AOL is exploring offering brands segment and channel sponsorships, as well as pre-roll inventory as the product rolls out. But the boldest ad push during last week’s auditions came from Procter & Gamble’s Secret, which ran a live video ad. During the spot, one of AOL’s anchors asked one of the auditioners whether she was nervous about sweating and then introduced a box of Secret Clinical Strength—live branded entertainment straight out of the Texaco Star Theater era. “That’s a really old way of marketing,” said Grosso.

Lyne said that she sees vast potential for brands to experiment with real-time marketing via AOL Live, a practice that’s mostly been limited to Facebook and Twitter to date. “When I was in Cannes last week, I had seven or eight brands come up to me and say they want to try something like this,” she said.

Done right, AOL execs believe live video ads could offer advertisers that authentic factor every CMO says they want.

Said AOL CEO Tim Armstrong: “You can see what happens when people talk about products that they actually like and it’s unscripted.”

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