Looking past the thumping music and flashing lights that pervaded AOL's NewFront presentation yesterday, the big theme from the company's new slate of original productions was far quieter: it wants to be the online home for authentic programming from thoughtful creators.
Going this less mainstream route means AOL isn't trying to out-TV TV - like for example Netflix is trying to do with "House of Cards" and its other new shows (how many times have you heard Netflix executives compare their efforts to HBO's?!). Though it is collaborating with some well-known talent such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Gwyneth Paltrow and Hank Azaria, AOL's new programs are mainly built around online and offline personalities who have unique perspectives on the world.
I think AOL's strategy is both practical and smart. Clearly it doesn't make financial sense at this stage for the company to invest heavily in TV-style production budgets, but it still wants to offer premium video to its audience and advertisers. The authentic route gives AOL brand-safe content that differentiates from TV's reality/competition, drama and sitcom landscape.
A big question is whether audiences will be drawn to this more thoughtful, authentic style. While I don't consider myself a critic by any stretch, I found a number of the shows intriguing: "My Ink" (athletes disclosing the personal stories behind their tattoos), "City.Ballet" (a docudrama from Parker about life in the New York City Ballet), "The Sartorialist" (stories about why people dress as they do), "Fatherhood" (a candid and funny look at fatherhood's ups and downs, from Azaria) and "Funded" (small-business crowd funding stories with comedian/author Baratunde Thurston).
None of the shows are what I'd expect to see on TV these days. I recognize that skeptics will say, ipso facto, they won't enjoy wide audience acceptance. Maybe. But AOL doesn't necessarily need that kind of "House of Cards" style validation right now. Rather, it should focus on understanding online viewers' behaviors and how new forms of distribution and promotion can build audiences.
Importantly, it also needs to cultivate advertisers by showing its commitment to originals as well as getting the right measurement/buying systems in place (steps it also took yesterday with Nielsen and with FreeWheel/Mediaocean).
If and when all of this happens, AOL will have played a key role in demonstrating how non-broadcasters and cable networks can succeed in premium video too.