TV Upfront

AOL Bets On More Short Series, and Steve Buscemi

A Focus on Lower-Budget 'Authentic' Content As Opposed To Longer, Scripted Shows

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AOL today will show its hand at the NewFronts: a slate of 16 shows, primarily short and unscripted, amounting to a heavy bet on glossy short-form as it tries to part TV advertisers with their ad dollars.

AOL's full slate, which its video head Ran Harnevo previewed with Ad Age, will feature a smattering of series spanning 8-12 episodes each, all running less than 10 minutes an episode with the exception of one, called "Connected," for which 20 episodes running 30 minutes in length are planned. The shows are unscripted, and will lean heavily on some big names -- Steve Buscemi, James Franco and Ellen Degeneres to name a few -- to draw audiences.

"Our main goal is to go after authentic voices," Mr. Harnevo said. "Authenticity is really the common denominator of the slate."

AOL's video strategy is straightforward: the company is content to play small-ball, with short, unscripted video series as opposed to long, scripted shows with multi-million dollar budgets. In other words: don't expect the next "House of Cards" to come out of AOL anytime soon.

"It's not that I don't believe in scripted," Mr. Harnevo said. "We just think that getting into authentic virality in short form video works better with non-scripted. I think BuzzFeed is doing the same thing."

The shows, then, are of a variety more likely to be enjoyed while clicking around the internet, as opposed to while leaning back, like broadcast television shows and their nascent digital competitors.

The Slate

"Park Bench," will feature actor Steve Buscemi striking up conversations with strangers on the streets of New York. "Making a Scene With James Franco," will star Mr. Franco who will reinvent classic movie scenes by recreating them with other artists. "Follow Me," produced by Fullscreen, will document the lives of digital celebrities.

AOL is also renewing four shows: "#CandidlyNicole" (with Nicole Richie), "city.ballet" (with Sarah Jessica Parker), "Hardwired" (with YouTube star iJustine) and tech show, "The Future Starts Here."

Verizon and CitiBank, which sponsored "Hardwired" and "city.ballet" respectively last year, have reupped for the shows this year. Verizon is also sponsoring "The Future Starts Here."

Mr. Harnevo said AOL garnered more than 160 million views on its original shows last year and more than 67 million uniques. It also sold 9 of 15 shows, an impressive draw given the poor performance of its competitors.

Mr. Harnevo said AOL is investing "way more" in each show this year, but when asked if he was able to quantity that, he declined.

Suffice it to say, AOL is investing less per show than the big studios and even perhaps even Yahoo, which yesterday announced plans to run two, half-hour long, scripted comedies.

Admitting a reality of the NewFronts, Mr. Harnevo said the business model is not yet ready to sustain mega investments in programming. "Netflix has a different business model. I don't think anyone's distribution right now, on digital, allows us if we're based on advertising, to create a $100 million dollar show," he said. "We need to get there but we can't jump too fast too early if we don't build the right distribution."

"I think this industry is a bunch of years from getting into that scale that gets into that [TV] budget. I'll be very realistic about that," he said.

Still, AOL does have one distinct advantage over its competitors: the ability to air its shows across the 2,000 publisher websites that agree to air its content -- original and licensed -- in exchange for a cut in ad revenue. "Last year we had shows that were watched outside of AOL more than they were watched in AOL," Mr. Harnevo said.

Under CEO Tim Armstrong, AOL is betting its future on three distinct businesses: premium content, ad-tech and web video. If and when the company's still robust subscription business dries up, the three will be what's left, making the performance of AOL's NewFronts pitch critical for the company each year.

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