Company reaches out for ad dollars

AOL is now officially a TV network.

In a network-style upfront presentation Tuesday, the Web giant announced a slate of programming with a full lineup of content from Hollywood vets.

The slate announcement, coming at the start of the upfront season for ad buyers, is meant to position AOL as an ad player along the lines of a TV outlet.

Slate will include projects from reality giant Endemol USA, production shingle Telepictures and a continued relationship with Mark Burnett Prods., which produced AOL’s “Gold Rush” skein.

Company also announced a competition initiative with DreamWorks Animation for upcoming “Shrek the Third,” in which AOL will unspool a number of movie-related games that will be produced by Burnett along with AOL and DWA.

Many of the programs skirt the line between interactive gaming and nonscripted programming; they can be categorized as either reality television with consumer participation or an online game with video components.

One of the most ambitious TV-style programs is “iLand,” an online community in which players compete for dominance of a group.

Series, which is produced by Endemol USA and set to air in the second quarter of 2008, will eventually spill into the real world as contestants move to an island and try to assert power there; those competitions, hosted by thesp Brooke Burns, will be broadcast online.

AOL also is teaming with sister Time Warner production shingle Telepictures, which supplies Warners distribution with content, for a tie-in to “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” Online programming will draw from user-generated content about viewers’ hometowns; some content will make its way to the syndie show.

And it will continue its Burnett collaboration with a new edition of “Gold Rush,” titled “Gold Rush Goes Hollywood,” focusing on industry and celebrity trivia. Series is set to bow in the summer.

AOL believes it can sell spots within the programming as well as peddle extensive product placement.

Company held its Gotham upfront Tuesday afternoon for hundreds of Madison Avenue execs.

But obstacles remain. AOL ad sales teams, for instance, are still selling across all of AOL’s platforms and are not devoted exclusively to programming sales the way teams from the nets are.

AOL sales exec Kathy Kayse said that the company will continue the model of setting five “category-exclusive” sponsors in its other shows as it did with “Gold Rush.”

“As marketers reallocate and re-prioritize their dollars, we think we have a huge advantage,” Kayse said.

The slate move is also an attempt to land cachet and creators in Hollywood. “We have scale that very few (online players) have, and that means we’re going to be a very attractive place for talent,” said exec veep of programming Bill Wilson.

AOL also wants to make up ground in the race for eyeballs.

Newly installed AOL topper Randy Falco, an NBC alumnus, emphasized that programming distinguished content from Google, Yahoo! and MSN.

While all three have some component of original content, those companies, which hold a user advantage over AOL in several key demos, have made a bigger push as a distributor of net and studio content.

Also on the slate is the previously announced gameshow “Million Dollar Bill,” which the company said would now include Leeza Gibbons as a host and likely include broadcast on an as-yet unnamed television show.

The intent is also to get viewers to circulate through AOL.

Though studies show most online viewers gravitate to programming and services more than corporate brands, Wilson said he believed programming would funnel users to Moviefone and other AOL services.

“Gold Rush” was the company’s first large programming experiment. AOL has declined to provide exact revenue figures for “Gold Rush,” but has cited 11 million users for the Web skein.

Wilson said the company prefers to measure the level of engagement, citing that average viewers spent more than 15 minutes on the program with each visit.

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