AOL Returns to Web Reality


Old-time online video fans will remember that AOL has gone to the realty programming trough several times before. A series of shows, some executed and some just planned, go back a half a decade or more. There was the Mark Burnett project "Gold Rush" (did that ever come off?) and a "Project Freshman" which was to chronicle a group of college newbies, of course. That some of us can't recall whether any of these shows even came to debut episodes gives us some idea of the track record of episodic Web reality programming, especially when Yahoo and AOL get mixed up in it. But now that online video viewing is well beyond the early adopter crowd, AOL is ready to head back into the fray. In a deal with Endemol, AOL will run "non-scripted" programming series on some of its many vertical sites.

The partners may be going back to a genre that has crashed and burned (even failed to lift off) more often than Jennifer Aniston has appeared in regrettable faux comedies. But they seem to have learned at least one lesson. Now the series will be "built-if-sold." Production doesn't start until AOL actually gets sponsors. The partnership aims specifically at women's programming and the project ideas try to emphasize their interactive features. The "Re-Dressed By America" show will have the viewers make-over the show subjects as they engage a seminal event in their lives like first dates or reunions. The viewers will pick hairstyles, dress, accessories. Sort of like playing Barbi but with people.

The other show, "Mama's Recipe" will be a more competitive reality series where families vie over their family recipes and I gather reveal some family secrets to the audience along the way. The shows will be plugged into AOL's fairly effective network of verticals, which has done a good job of creating branded media hits like the "You've Got" series and blogs such as Daily Finance. Like Yahoo, AOL still has some distribution muscle despite their tarnished business reputations in the trade. The network touches millions of users and is capable of cross-marketing new concepts and funneling audiences into fresh content ideas. TMZ, after all, was born as an AOL spin-off brand.

Whether Web viewers really are ready to support an ongoing Webisodic in the unscripted space remains to be seen. The Web series that have generated large followings generally are non-serial programs that a user can snack on randomly or are driven by a daily desire for news or a personality. The dream of having users transfer their TV viewing habits to the Web lives on, nonetheless.

4 comments about "AOL Returns to Web Reality ".
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  1. Jonathan Mirow from BroadbandVideo, Inc., January 13, 2011 at 5:31 p.m.

    Sorry - tried to leave this alone and couldn't. I did the first "live" video on AOL (1997 - we had a chat session with Heraldo Rivera in our Denver office and hooked up a one frame per second video feed) and it's been downhill with AOL and video ever since then. Here's a telling excercise: go to and do a search on Daybreak (their 2 minute fluff-video "morning show") you'll notice that many of these clips have single digit views. As usual you can watch me comment on it in my Weekly New Media Commentary - I'm NOT spamming, I actually talk about this. The reason AOL sucks at video is the same reason they suck at general content - the web ain't middle-of-the-road, white-bread fluffers from New York or LA and they are. 'Nuff Said.

  2. M Gb from ICL, January 13, 2011 at 6:42 p.m.

    "Project Freshman" not only aired on AOL's teen service RED, but it won a Telly award! RED became the #1 Teen service online in the US. Project Freshman had an average of 1MM teens viewing. The show followed a selection of Freshman throughout their first semester. It was shot by the Freshman themselves and "floating" camera crews. Produced by 2C Media in Miami, it was the most successful reality program on RED, and to be honest, on AOL at that time. It really was good viewing, and later copied almost in it's entirety by MTV.

  3. Zachary Zeiler, January 14, 2011 at 1:23 a.m.

    Gold Rush was a 1 and 3/4 page memo outline that was given to VPI.Net to build from. From that document the amazing and gifted team of VPI.Net build Gold Rush and built over 240 games. It was truly a brilliant campaign and from logo design (which you are showing here) to the full online experience from A to Z (less the stupid TV show part that took place weekly) was done by VPI.Net. Anyone else taking credit for the work that was done by VPI.Net is lying as it was 100% VPI.Net. Sadly, after a serious spinal cord injury and 2009 economic downturn with clients unable to pay their bills and health issues--VPI.Net ceased operations. It was a horrible decision but one that could not be avoided. It caused a lot of people to be upset that VPI went away, but as the former CEO and Chairman it was heartbreaking after 15 years to be sidelined by health and a dishonest former CFO. Those things were horrible, but the positive was that the best group ever assembled worked on this project from Brian Rothmuller, to Cat Chien, to Francis Albar to Todd Graham and Moses Smith and Jonathan Atha (one of the few times that I will praise the SVPs that ran day to day as they were not the most honorable of people and cost the company a lot of great people. But this team was the best team as was everyone involved on Gold Rush.

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 14, 2011 at 7:46 p.m.

    You know Geraldo well, do you Jonathan ? The empty vault made for some fiesty sales.

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