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NewFronts Recap: Stars Come Out for Internet Video

At the second running of the Digital Content NewFronts last week in New York, the online video players and TV nets hyping themselves displayed two competing approaches to onboarding content.

The question is whether you believe Internet video will become more like TV — or, as Monty Python once said, be something completely different.

In one camp are the likes of AOL, Hulu, Yahoo and Sony’s Crackle, which are forking over the cash to lure brand-name entertainment celebs to star in and produce original Internet content, as well as cut deals for traditional TV content. The goal is to attract viewers — and ad bucks — across an array of genres with programming that stacks up with what’s on the boob tube.

“For us, it’s a quality bar,” Hulu interim CEO Andy Forrsell said. “We’re sitting next to the best of what was on TV last night. That’s the bar for our original programming.”

Then there’s YouTube, which is redoubling on a different strategy: To build homegrown Internet video talent into digital superstars, generating interesting stuff you would never see on TV. New media companies like Blip and Alloy Digital fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

It’s not a zero-sum game, of course, as the appetite among broadband users for online video continues to grow. But industry observers expect the move to high-quality, TV-like shows online to start chiseling away at television’s stronghold — eventually.

“In a way this is a watershed year,” said Gary Reisman, principal with digital marketing consultancy NewMediaMetrics. “But it will take time for the full vision to develop and the full monetary landscape to shift.”

AOL, for one, 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,” said Ran Harnevo, senior veep of video at AOL.

This year, AOL will triple what it spends on original video programming this year with a slate of 15 new shows, many featuring established entertainment personalities. Those include Sarah Jessica Parker, exec producer of “City.Ballet.” docuseries about NYC Ballet; Hank Azaria, “Fatherhood,” a reality show about his experiences as a new dad; Nicole Richie in “#CandidlyNicole,” based on her Twitter feed musings; and Gwyneth Paltrow, whose “Second Chances” skein about women who have overcome hardships is produced by Ryan Seacrest Prods.

Content creators behind AOL’s new originals are “all digital natives, with their own blogs and huge Twitter followings,” said Karen Cahn, head of original programming for AOL On Network, 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.”

As part of trying to wrest coin away from TV ad budgets, AOL teamed with FreeWheel and Mediaocean on a system, dubbed FourFronts, that promises to let media buyers extend existing TV buying workflow and systems to reach AOL premium video auds.

AOL is trying in other ways to combine the low-cost content profile of the Internet world with the reach of TV. It cut 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.

Hulu, which at its core remains a place for next-day TV catchup viewing, similarly led its originals story with roster of recognizable television talent. Seth Meyers (“Saturday Night Live”) and Michael Shoemaker (“Late Night with Jimmy Fallon”) are co-creators of “The Awesomes” animated original, and Eva Longoria talked up her “Mother Up!” exclusive animated laffer.

Soap stars on hand at Hulu’s pitch session included actors from “One Life To Live” and “All My Children.” Sudsers, reborn in new productions by Prospect Park after ABC canceled them in 2011, debuted on Hulu last week. “We are not just daytime TV. We are anytime TV,” OLTL’s Erika Slezak said.

Yahoo’s slate of six new shows also includes celebrity talent and content creators. Three new comedy skeins skedded to debut in fall are “Tiny Commando,” created by and starring Ed Helms (“The Office”) along with Zachary Levi (“Chuck”), which follows a 4-inch-tall private investigator; “We Need Help” from Vuguru, starring and produced by Cheryl Hines and Rachael Harris, which follows the exploits of their shared personal assistant, Max; and “Losing Your Virginity” with John Stamos, in which Stamos interviews celebrities about their first sexual experiences — and will include reenactments with either actors or puppets.

Yahoo’s also pulling traditional TV into its fold. It recently inked exclusive online deal with Broadway Video for “Saturday Night Live” library clips, and pacted with wrestling giant WWE for archive content and new material available exclusively on Yahoo. Internet company also reupped its partnership with ABC News, to bring three more franchises — “Nightline,” “World News Tonight With Diane Sawyer” and “Good Morning America” — to daily, digital-native extensions and will produce third online original series with CNBC.

“We are building scale, reaching more targeted audiences and innovating with content,” Yahoo veep and head of video Erin McPherson said.

Crackle, the online video net from Sony Pictures Television, likewise is banking on household names with its 2013 slate. Its lineup of eight originals includes second seasons of three prior shows, including “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” with Jerry Seinfeld; crime-action series “Cleaners” starring David Arquette; and vidsite’s first feature-length digital movies: martial-arts pic “Extraction” featuring Danny Glover and a sequel to comedy “Joe Dirt” with David Spade.

“Quality and differentiated content that is programmed and presented in meaningful ways is more important than ever before,” said Eric Berger, exec veep of digital networks at Sony Pictures Television and GM of Crackle. Because SPT follows a studio model, Crackle’s 2013 slate is “all greenlit and guaranteed to go forward,” Berger said in his pitch to the crowd of ad buyers.

“I like that it’s backed by Sony,” said Arquette, who in “Cleaners” plays an FBI agent. “They know what they are doing. And it won’t be canceled after a couple of episodes.”

YouTube, by contrast, brought out largely Internet-only personalities before the Madison Avenue crowd — not boldface names, unless you’re under 20. Those included Felicia Day, producer and featured star on Geek & Sundry channel (“I usually get recognized by baristas”); hip-hop violinist Lindsey Stirling (who in 2010 was booted off “America’s Got Talent” before becoming an Internet sensation); Ryan Higa of YouTube’s nigahiga channel; and D-Trix, exec producer and host of “Dance Showdown.”

YouTube execs claimed they’ve already changed face of video entertainment for a new generation, and pushed the idea that the website is the perfect marketing machine for branded content.

“I thought that YouTube was like TV, but it isn’t. I was wrong,” global head of content Robert Kyncl said at Google’s YouTube Brandcast event. “TV is one-way. YouTube talks back.” YouTube now reaches more U.S. viewers 18-34 than any single TV network, he said, citing Nielsen analysis.

As far as new content or partners, YouTube didn’t have much to discuss. AwesomenessTV, YouTube channel aimed a teens which has had more than 100 million video views since launching last June, is introducing scripted teen drama “Side Effects” and reality show “How to Be a YouTube Star,” series of shows in which a fan will be given opportunity to star in their own video.

“Teens love to be content creators,” AwesomenessTV CEO Brian Robbins said.

DreamWorks Animation decided Robbins was on to something, and bought its way into the space: Last week studio announced the acquisition of AwesomenessTV for $33 million. Online video is “something we need to be a part of, and the best possible way to do this is to partner,” DWA topper Jeffrey Katzenberg said. “It’s the medium of the future, and the future has already arrived.”

Full coverage from the week’s NewFronts:

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