Pledging to "change the way the Internet looks and feels," AOL Chairman and Chief Executive Tim Armstrong used the high-profile platform of the Digital NewFront presentation to advertisers to launch an online network for showcasing digital video.
The new network, dubbed AOL On, is designed as a one-stop online destination where viewers can find 14 channels programmed -- as cable television channels are -- around interests such as food, business, entertainment, health and technology. The short-form video could be viewed on four dominant screens -- computers, tablets, mobile phones and Internet-connected TVs.
"Consumer adoption of the Internet is going to continue to explode," Armstrong told a group of more than 450 marketers, ad agency representatives and media buyers at a presentation Tuesday. "Every single human being on the planet is going to be walking around with a screen on them -- and we believe that content is the most important thing that's going to touch those screens."
AOL Senior Vice President Ran Harnevo portrayed AOL On as the next wave in video entertainment, following the broadcast television era and the emergence of cable TV -- which introduced channels programmed around various passions, including music, food, sports and entertainment. Internet video democratized the creation and distribution of content, he said, but in this era of "broadcast yourself (a reference to the dominant Internet video site, YouTube) ... we got flooded with dogs on skateboards."
"It's frustrating both for consumers and for advertisers," Harnevo said. "We as an industry have a problem -- and we've been thinking a lot about this problem for the last 18 months."
Harnevo said AOL On seeks to borrow the best of TV -- namely, its programming -- and apply it to the fragmented Internet video experience. AOL plans to select from among some 300,000 short-form videos to bring the most relevant to the new channels. It also has enlisted celebrities, including supermodel Heidi Klum, "Project Runway" judge Nina Garcia and former Bravo TV "Top Chef" semifinalist Sam Talbot to help curate content selections.
"I spent my life curating as a fashion editor. I've traveled the world looking for fashion and really selecting what is most relevant for our readers," said Garcia, who is fashion director at Marie Claire magazine. "In this digital era, there is a lot of information.... Having a point of view, an expert's point of view, is so important."
AOL's approach is reminiscent of YouTube's premium content strategy, in which the Google Inc.-owned site devoted some $100 million to underwrite the cost of creating new channels that address entertainment niches.
Armstrong said that before he decided to pursue this content strategy, the former Google executive sought the advice of Walt Disney Co.'s former chairman and chief executive, Michael Eisner.
Eisner, who subsequently founded Vuguru, an independent studio to create content for digital and emerging platforms, also took the stage Tuesday to talk about a theme he returns to frequently: the importance of story-driven content.
"I keep coming back to this one point of view," Eisner said. "I read two scripts that [Vuguru CEO] Larry Tanz and [Vuguru Chief Creative Officer] Kristin Jones sent me. It was like reading any two scripts at a movie company or TV company. These were really high-quality, very high-concept movies."
One new Vuguru digital series that premieres June 18 on AOL, "Fetching," was created by "Sex and the City" producer Amy Harris and stars Collette Wolfe of the 2010 feature film comedy "Hot Tub Time Machine" and the ABC television series "Cougar Town." The comedy revolves around the exploits of a lawyer who quits her job, breaks off her engagement and pursues her dream of opening her own business -- a doggie day-care store called "Fetching."
Another Vuguru series, "Little Women Big Cars," debuts May 7. Set in Southern California, it centers around four devoted soccer moms who struggle to balance their schedules and family lives while striving to retain their sanity. Its ensemble cast includes Amy Yasbeck ("Wings"), Julie Warner ("Crash" and "Nip/Tuck"), Kristy Swanson ("Psych") and Romy Rosemont ("Glee").
-- Dawn C. Chmielewski