Online Reality: AOL Looks Beyond Its ISP Roots

Oct 24, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Reality programming on-air has stumbled recently, with several marquee shows suffering ratings blows, but a new spate of reality fare has cropped up online.

As AOL seeks to position itself as an entertainment property and distribution portal and not just an Internet service provider, it has turned to the reality genre with a slate of two new reality series and one returning reality show running online this fall.

As the Internet becomes an important vehicle for video consumption, AOL is betting that it can re-create the success it had with its broadcast of the Live 8 concert this summer, which was seen by many as a watershed moment for broadband viewing.

Of course, the portal runs the risk of jumping with gusto into a genre that may be wearing out its welcome. According to a September poll from the Associated Press-TV Guide, 80 percent of Americans think there are too many reality shows on TV.

But AOL producers say the Web is uniquely suited for reality programming because viewers can choose to watch some or all of the shows and dig as deeply into different characters and story lines as they want, given the way the shows are presented. They are programmed specifically for broadband consumption and feature a mix of elements, such as blogs, journals, short video clips, audition videos and other materials. What users won’t find is a 22- or 44-minute show.

Online reality is also more authentic, with fewer staged or false moments, said Malcolm Bird, senior VP and general manager for kids and teens at AOL, who is overseeing AOL’s new reality show “Project Freshman.” “This is as real as it gets,” he said. “No producer is standing in the wings saying, ‘Can we take that again?'”

Here’s what the Web portal has on its schedule for reality fare:

“The Biz” premiered Sept. 15 after a two-month online casting process. Contestants compete for the chance to run a new record label from Warner Music. Chevy and Sprint are advertisers for the show and their products are also integrated into the content.

On Sept. 24, AOL debuted “Project Freshman,” which follows six college freshmen through their first semester. The students, working as their own crew, chronicle their experience in blogs and video diaries as well as three- to five-minute segments that run each week for each student, with new episodes every Thursday.

Finally, AOL premiered the second season of “The Startup” Oct. 18. The show follows three small businesses for an entire year via short weekly episodes and blogs. AOL is negotiating with advertisers to sponsor “The Startup” and “Project Freshman.”

AOL airs a number of online shows in other genres, including music, radio, sports and entertainment.

The portal has competition in its new entertainment mission. Yahoo is looking to create Web-exclusive properties, while cable networks are savvy to broadband opportunities for both existing programs and Web content. Scripps Networks has crafted a webisode for a November premiere on Food Network’s Web site, while HGTV premiered its “My First Space” online Oct. 17.

MTV offers broadband companion programs on its MTV Overdrive site, while Nickelodeon and VH1 have both offered online sneak peeks at shows, as have broadcast networks like The WB. Also, InterActive Corp.’s CEO Barry Diller said earlier this month at a conference that IAC will finance and develop original content for the Web.


But AOL’s work is noteworthy because of the divergence it represents from the company’s original roots and the lengths to which it’s going to stay relevant. Also, unlike cable networks that debut shows online, AOL must rise and fall solely on its online performance.

AOL’s early efforts are promising, said Will Richmond, president of broadband research firm Broadband Directions. “They are a real standout in terms of how innovative they are in coming up with broadband-only projects, and as a result are becoming a key beneficiary of the boom in broadband video advertising,” he said.

Ultimately the viewership numbers the shows generate will be the most important measure of the success of this new strategy. But the fact that AOL can nimbly and quickly experiment with what works and doesn’t is the hallmark of a successful online company, Mr. Richmond said.

Certainly AOL is well positioned to generate strong numbers since its network of Web sites already attracts more than 112 million unique U.S. visitors each month, according to ComScore MediaMetrix data provided by AOL.

That network will be a key venue for promoting the various shows, but AOL will also market “The Biz,” for instance, online with search engine marketing and targeted online ad buys, as well as spot radio in key markets and national print weeklies including Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone.

AOL received more than 9,000 applications for “The Biz,” said Jordan Kurzweil, VP of AOL Productions. During the casting process, the online audience was able to select two of the nine finalists for the show. The daily episodes started Oct. 18 and will run Monday through Friday for five weeks. Each episode will be three to five minutes, with about three pieces of additional material for viewers who want to go deeper into the show.

“We are really using the medium to its full extent,” Mr. Kurzweil said. “The Biz” can be accessed on thebiz.com, AOL.com, AOLMusic and AOL Instant Messenger. The other shows are available throughout the AOL network of Web sites.