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.