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NewFronts: AOL Bets on Star Wattage to Win TV Ad Dollars

Slate of Internet original series features Sarah Jessica Parker, Hank Azaria, Nicole Richie, Gwyneth Paltrow and others

AOL is tripling investment in original video programming this year with a slate of 15 new shows, many featuring brand-name entertainment personalities including Sarah Jessica Parker, Hank Azaria, Nicole Richie and Gwyneth Paltrow.

AOL is previewing the originals slate at the Digital Content NewFronts event in New York. The theme of the presentation is “bridging the gap” between premium online video and TV — in other words, AOL wants marketers to view it as if it were a traditional broadcast or cable net.

“There’s a moment in time when consumers and advertisers want to start bridging the gap between digital and traditional TV,” Ran Harnevo, senior veep of video at AOL, said in an interview. “The two industries are going to become one sooner rather than later.”

As part of trying to wrest coin away from TV ad budgets, AOL has teamed up with FreeWheel and Mediaocean on a system that promises to let media buyers extend existing TV buying workflow and systems to reach AOL premium video auds. Companies’ joint solution is FourFronts, which lets online-video publishers sell to TV media buying agencies directly. AOL also is participating in Nielsen’s test to measure online viewing in “overnight” fashion — the only Internet video publisher to do so.

Still, industry analysts say premium Internet video’s scale remains relatively small and note that online video ad budgets aren’t converging with TV spend anytime soon. “We doubt that meaningful ad budgets shift to the web because of the (NewFronts) presentations,” Pivotal Research Group analyst Brian Wieser wrote in a research note.

But AOL is trying in several ways to combine the low-cost content profile of the Internet world with the reach of TV. This week it announced a deal to bring a six-hour daily block of HuffPost Live — an interactive online talkshow launched last summer — to Mark Cuban’s AXS TV cable network.

AOL’s online original series are “centered around creators with authentic voices telling real stories,” said Karen Cahn, head of original programming for AOL On Network. New shows span autos, entertainment, tech, style, business, sports, parenting and food.

The AOL entertainment slate includes “City.Ballet.” from exec producer Sarah Jessica Parker, a docudrama about New York City Ballet and dancers produced by Pretty Matches Prods. and Zero Point Zero Prods.; and “#CandidlyNicole” based on Richie’s Twitter feed musings on her daily life, produced by Telepictures Prods. and World of Wonder.

“Second Chances” features Paltrow and Tracy Anderson talking to women who have overcome hardships. Skein is produced by Ryan Seacrest Prods.  Azaria stars in “Fatherhood,” a show about the challenges of being a first-time father, produced by BermanBraun.

Sports and lifestyle fare includes Mike Tollin’s “My Ink” examining the world of tattoos among sports celebs, produced by Mandalay Sports Media; “Anthony Eats America,” a food travelogue featuring actor-comedian Anthony Anderson produced by Principato-Young Entertainment; and “Now Eat This! Italy With Rocco DiSpirito,” in which the chef visits Italian moms to learn culinary secrets.

In the style category, AOL entries are “Inspiration Point With Jonathan Adler,” produced by AOL Studios, and “The Sartorialist,” in which photographer Scott Schuman searches for fashion trends on city streets.

Pair of tech shows, both from AOL Studios, are “Hardwired” covering wearable gadgets, and “The Future Starts Here,” exploring humanity’s evolution with technology.

Business shows are “Funded,” success stories about crowdfunded small businesses hosted by author-comedian Baratunde Thurston, and “Acting Disruptive,” profiles of Hollywood stars who are launching tech and new-media startups, produced by Tribeca Enterprises.

At close of event, AOL topper Tim Armstrong announced that Razorfish, in partnership with Digitas LBi, bought the biz  channel on the AOL On Network, giving them exclusivity on both “Funded” and “Acting Disruptive.”

Other shows in the mix: “Flat Out,” a docu-series following 17-year-old NASCAR driver Dylan Kwasniewski; “Fuego Your Life,” with Colombian-born host Sandra Vergara dishing on style and beauty, produced by Telepictures Prods.

Content creators behind AOL’s new originals are “all digital natives, with their own blogs and huge Twitter followings,” Cahn said, noting that Richie has more than 4 million Twitter followers. “That’s not to say it’s not uber-premium in quality, but that they know how to engage an audience.”

Shows will premiere on the AOL On Network platform and across 1,700 partner sites. AOL vidsites had 40.5 million unique viewers who watched 724.4 million videos in March, according to comScore.

AOL also is touting the success of the previous season’s programming slate. At last year’s NewFronts it announced six shows: “Digital Justice,” “Decoding Style,” “TBE,” “Home of the Brave,” “Fetching” and “Little Women Big Cars.” Season two of “Little Women Big Cars,” created with Vuguru, debuted earlier this month. Earlier this year, AOL Autos’ “Translogic” and Autoblog’s “The List,” were picked up by Fox Sports Media Group’s Speed to become linear TV shows.

“We have on average 60 million uniques exposed to our content and ads. We have enough distribution where we can create a lot more original content,” Harnevo said.

In addition, AOL will pitch a new solution, dubbed Be On, to produce branded, multiplatform video content for advertisers and agencies. Be On incorporates video-distribution service goviral (which AOL acquired in January 2011) with AOL Studios production and analytical capabilities.

Separately, last week Internet media company shut down AOL Music and several other music sites, as it shifts toward higher-growth areas such as original online video content.

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