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AOL’s Tim Armstrong Touts Live-Programming Push With New NYC Studio, as Yahoo Deal Hangs in Limbo

Tim Armstrong, CEO of AOL, has two distinct full-time jobs right now: running the AOL business, and planning for when — or if — parent company Verizon completes the acquisition of Yahoo.

On the former, Armstrong presided over opening night of AOL’s new live-streaming Build Studio last Thursday in New York City’s Greenwich Village. The street-level studio, at 692 Broadway, is three blocks down from AOL’s headquarters at 770 Broadway (where the Build Series was previously produced from smaller quarters). The new 13,412-square-foot studio is designed to shoot in 360-degree video, for potential live virtual-reality broadcasts.

The studio gives AOL’s Build Series, which comprises interviews and performances with actors, musicians, athletes, authors and other cultural figures, a new venue from which it will stream around 75 live events per month, comprising more than four hours of live programming each day.

“One of the big opportunities for us is experiential video,” Armstrong said in an interview. “It’s where the street meets the future of video.”

As AOL has been investing in new initiatives like the Build Studio, it also cut about 500 jobs, more than 5% of its workforce, in the fourth quarter. Those positions were mainly in display advertising sales, according to Armstrong, as AOL’s ad-sales strategy shifts to focus on two areas: automated programmatic advertising on one end, and high-touch integrated sponsorships such as those sold in conjunction with live events at the Build Studio. “We’re getting out of the middle,” Armstrong said.

In the future, the Build Studio may also host live events from Yahoo content teams, like Yahoo Sports, according to Armstrong — assuming, that is, that Verizon’s $4.8 billion bid for Yahoo is consummated.

Right now, Verizon and AOL are waiting for Yahoo to finish its investigation into the two major hacking events from 2013 and 2014, which resulted in the theft of info from more than 1 billion user accounts. “My job is to execute on (the Yahoo integration) as if (the deal) were happening,” Armstrong said. “There will be a negotiated outcome.”

“The Yahoo brand is a big asset,” Armstrong said, but he added that AOL and Verizon are evaluating what the effect the data breaches have had on consumers’ brand perception of Yahoo. Armstrong said he’s working closely with Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and her team on the integration plans, but he said her role following a transition period has yet to be determined. Mayer is “in a mode where she wants to see them through to the next iteration,” he said. “Then depending on what the next phase is, we’ll make a decision.”

For AOL’s Jan. 12 launch of the Build Studio, pop-soul singer Kat Graham performed with a 10-piece band, crammed in to the main stage area facing East 4th Street. “Music will be a bigger part of the future of Build,” said Armstrong

For the new Build Studio, Armstrong would not say how much AOL spent to lease and build out the space. But he said it was already well-equipped for broadcast video because it was previously home to the MLB’s Fan Cave live social-media space (which the league shut down in 2015). Previously, the location had been a Tower Records store; the Build Studio pays homage to the Tower legacy with concert posters on the hallway walls from bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Depeche Mode and the Police. AOL announced plans to open the street-level studio last May.

Guests for the first week in the new Build Studio are slated to included Neil Patrick Harris, Viola Davis, Nina Dobrev, J.K. Simmons and James McAvoy.

The Build Series is executive produced by former Apple marketing exec Suzanne Lindbergh, who launched the programming initiative two years ago — before Facebook Live took root, Armstrong noted. A recent AOL Build interview with Sting drew about 300,000 live concurrent streams. Others who have appeared on the live program in the past include Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling, Elton John, John Legend, Kristin Chenoweth and Olympic athletes including Lindsey Vonn.

The Build Series is available on the web at build.aol.com, as well as on Apple TV, apps for iOS and Android, and Verizon’s Fios1 Network. Select events also are accessible on Sony PlayStation and Facebook Live. In addition, the City of New York’s NYC Life Channel 25, available to about 18 million pay-TV homes in the New York metro area, this spring plans to regularly feature locally focused content from the studio.

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