AOL Slates 16 New Series, Banks On A Lot Of Inspiration

At the AOL NewFront event, it trotted out 16 series -- four of them returned from a year ago -- and CEO Tim Armstrong from the get-go tried to position the Internet company as part of the line of American entertainment giants finding its space in history books.

He noted, for example, that P.T. Barnum led a bunch of elephants over the new Brooklyn Bridge to unspook locals who thought, maybe the new span couldn't handle a lot of weight.

Not quite making the Barnum comparison to AOL, at least a smaller point was that it took quite an effort for 3,000 guests to cross the East River to a Brooklyn warehouse area on a blustery night just for cocktails and a spiel, and thankfully, AOL umbrellas as swag.

Among the highlights, for me at least, was seeing Nicole Richie, in a videotaped bit, talk breezily about programmatic buying as if she knew/cared about it. That she (hopefully) does not, made the joke work. Given AOL’s success with Adap.tv, it was a good way for the company to acknowledge a hard-to-decipher part of the family.

The programs are easier to explain. They include series like “Kevin Nealon’s Laugh Lessons” produced with Ellen DeGeneres, in which he talks to kids about the problems of the world and how laughter could help solve them. It sounds inspired by the insurance commercials but came off, in the brief clip, as something fairly charming and unique and would seem to be a nice fit for the gentle Nealon style.

“That’s Racist,” starring comedian Mike Epps, promises to unveil subtle and blatant racism in society and try to dig into the roots of the myriad slights and daily insults people of all colors or ethnic identification experience. Among a lot of NewFronts programming that seems peculiarly similar and not challenging -- and designed mainly to satisfy only advertisers -- the Epps project stands out, at least as an idea. It’s what Epps and AOL do with it.

Other AOL stuff salutes the more ennobling trait of humankind, including “My Hero,” produced by Zoe Saldana and aimed at profiling life-changing characters; “Win/Win” about famous athletes put up close and personal with famous, powerful business executives;  “Inspired” in which A-listers tell the story of a pivotal moment that propelled their success; and “Follow Me,” which takes viewers into the lives of a new era’s digital creative heroes.

"My Hero" and AOL's documentary series, "Connected," it was announced, caught the attention of DigitasLBi, which made a deal for exclusive ad rights, AOL said later.  

If other online video developers are trying to find drama and comedy (or if not, cooking shows), AOL seems kind of stuck on real-life inspiration stuff. No problem! Though it does seem a little bit like  programming a slate of The Best of “CBS Sunday Morning.”

Still, hats off to AOL; since launching AOL On in 2012, it has produced some content that has stuck amid a lot of slick nothing offered elsewhere.  

“#CandidlyNicole,” in fact, continues on AOL, while also finding a place on MTV, and she’s developing a unique voice of sorts. 

Last night, she was paired with Platforms CEO Bob Lord and launched a brief on-stage interview with: “I’ve heard that programming is the shit, so why don’t you tell all about it?” Exactly the question we wanted asked!

At the end of the night, Armstrong took to the stage again, with Steve Hasker, president of global product leadership at Nielsen, to stress that the AOL originals will be measured using Nielsen-provided gross ratings points, just like television. That too, I guess, is inspiring.

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