NewFront News and Views: AOL Triumphant

By Tomorrow Will Be Televised Archives
Cover image for  article: NewFront News and Views: AOL Triumphant

AOL, now part of Verizon, is known for staging its annual Digital Content NewFront event in unusual locations; across from the World Trade Center Memorial last May, in the Brooklyn Navy Yard the spring before. This year AOL really went the distance, presenting its show outside at the South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan and inviting thousands of consumers to get immersive with advertisers and media officials. (Also in this report: News about Nielsen, Defy Media challenges advertisers and the press to hold digital content providers to their promises, Vox Media fumbles again and Ellen Digital Ventures, from Ellen DeGeneres and Warner Bros., gets it all wrong.)

Venue: AOL took over the area spanning Fulton Street from Water Street to the East River Drive, plus two blocks of Beekman Street. Where MTV turned the cavernous Moynihan Station into an indoor carnival, AOL amazingly converted storefronts on both sides of several city blocks into technology or content exhibits. The cobblestone streets in the area were lined with food stands and game booths (one featuring a drone search, sponsored by TechCrunch). A big concert stage was set up at one end of Fulton St., with a basketball contest at the other end. One storefront on a corner of Fulton and Beekman housed the “formal” presentation, given before consumers were allowed into the area. That locale included a mini-bar and space for conducting interviews in the style of E! or “Entertainment Tonight.” For a while, it looked like AOL would be at the mercy of Mother Nature for the second time in three years. (The Brooklyn Navy Yard showcase in 2014 had many attendees waiting in a downpour for transportation home.) Fortunately, the rain held off. Grade: 5 Jacks each for the design and execution.

Presentation: AOL president Tim Armstrong bashed recent research and anecdotal observations that suggest smart TVs and smart TV-making devices like Roku, Apple TV and Chromecast have become the way people watch digital content. Seventy percent of his company's content is viewed by mobile and smartphones, with more than 100 million hours of live material streamed every day, proof that "those devices are the (consumer's) second brain," Armstrong declared. "Over time, that will become a more powerful combination." Under Verizon's wing, AOL will emphasize content development for its Go90 mobile service. However, according to Verizon Senior Vice President of Consumer Products Brian Angiolet, Go90 will be adaptable for extensions into "the broader Verizon family." A question-and-answer session where Armstrong and Angiolet could have elaborated on or defended their strategy was yanked on the spot, making way for a live transmission of the AOL talk series “Build” with the stars and directors of Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize-winner "The Lobster." (Note: Angiolet told me post-presentation that there are no plans to extend Go90 content to Fios TV this summer. But down the road, Fios and smart TVs/devices could be new distribution avenues.) Grade: 2.5 Jacks, downgraded from 3 because of pulling the Q&A opportunity.

News: At least 20 new short and long-form series will debut before the end of 2016. (AOL did not issue a press release on those series and their planned premiere dates.) One or more will be produced using virtual reality techniques. A couple of shows were previewed as street exhibits, including "The Runner" (a reality competition show from Matt Damon and Ben Affleck originally sold to ABC 16 years ago but shut down in the wake of 9/11). Also announced: “Build” will originate from a ground floor downtown Manhattan studio, in public view, this fall. Grade: 3 Jacks

Host: Armstrong is as smooth and engaging executive presenter as you can get. Too bad that Q&A was cut. Grade: 3.5 Jacks

Star Time: Years and Years, the current pop music rage in England, put on a fun performance on that big Fulton Street stage. After I left, Demi Lovato, Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa wowed the crowd. (Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa re pictured at top.) As for the crowd size, some reports estimate between 5,000 and 7,000 people showed up. Grade: 3.5 Jacks

Cuisine: Wonderful selection, with kudos to the organizers for having two locations for each food stand to help shorten the lines. Best chow-down: Portabello and pork belly schnitzel sandwiches, and yet one more variation on this year’s Upfront staple, pulled pork inside a glazed donut. This one had red onion slaw. Worst chow-down: No contenders. Grade: 4 Jacks (Note: Cuisine ratings do not figure into the total Jacks score.)

Overall Grade: 4 Jacks  Another nominee for Best Upfront/NewFront event of 2016. Hugley ambitious and beautifully executed, with excellent crowd control. Had that promised Q&A not been pulled the grade would have been a 4.5.

Notes from the NewFront passing parade:

Over the next few weeks, Nielsen will release a study of consumer viewership/usage of specific smart TV sets and devices. For the first time, we'll get a major snapshot proving, or disproving, the growing notion that TV is how people are watching Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Crackle and other digitally transmitted services. What's more, this Nielsen report will track Apple TV apps, including AirBnB, Zillow, Gilt Group and virtual reality on TV programmer Littlestar. Keep in mind that Apple holds its annual worldwide developer conference next month, and for the first time, Apple TV app creation will be a major focus.

Four days into NewFronts '16, we've already had two disruptors to the schedule. Vox Media, as they did last year, held an event that press didn't know about until after the fact. Vox issued a post-event release to reporters in Digitas' press room last year, but as of this writing it has yet to provide any post-show information about this year’s event. Is this any way to impress the press? You bet it ain’t! Our second disruptor is Ellen Digital Ventures, the joint venture between Ellen DeGeneres and Warner Bros., which syndicates her daily talk/variety hour. A select few reporters (not this one) were summoned on the fly after Hulu's midweek event to another Manhattan location for details on a new slate of original series. I understand DeGeneres was not there in person, but did contribute a video commentary. Journalists out of that loop had to check out Warner Bros.' press site for the news. Total silliness from all involved.

A different kind of gauntlet was thrown by Defy Media executives at their NewFront presentation (the same day as AOL). Chief executive Matt Diamond invited attendees to hold the feet of all participating companies to the fire when they tout upcoming series, especially series that don't come with expected launch dates. "Are they committed to what they're pushing (for the next year)?" he asked, asserting that they should be called out if the programming promises they make don’t come to pass. "You should really hold us accountable," Diamond added. "If we mess up, it matters." New series ahead at Defy include "These Five People," (scripted series offering five perspectives of a common situation), "Diss Track" (pop lyric parodies) and "Pawplay (pet owners turn their pets into pop culture characters).

A quick summary of our Jacks system:

5 Jacks -- Excellent
4 Jacks -- Very Good
3 Jacks -- Good
2 Jacks -- Fair
1 Jack -- Poor
0 Jacks -- Don't go there

Next up: Hulu

Until the next time, stay well and stay tuned!

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