By Ingrid Lunden
AOL has had a few knocks from shareholders over whether it's on the right track with its content strategy - a mix of high-volume, ad-based websites that cover lifestyle, tech, travel, news and more - but CEO Tim Armstrong has stayed the course, and today the company is launching a video portal that it hopes will prove that the value of those holdings extends beyond even what you see on the sites themselves.
AOL On, as the new site is called, is a premium content portal that will work across desktop, mobile and tablet optimized sites and apps, as well as connected TV devices. And the guy running it, Ran Harnevo, SVP of AOL On, makes clear that it is nothing like a YouTube wannabe: "No dogs on skateboards, and no upload button," he says.
Instead, it brings together all the video offerings from AOL's various content properties, including sites like HuffingtonPost, Engadget, AOL.com and (of course) TechCrunch - 14 properties in all with a total reach of 57 million U.S. consumers monthly. It will also bring together content that once existed on AOL Video, goviral, StudioNow and AOL HD brands.
But wait! There's more: it will also include a program of commissioned, original content. Initially that list will include mainly factual/unscripted programming, shows with titles like "Digital Justice," "Little Women Big Cars" (that's me! no, just kidding) and "Next Door Hero." It will also include at least one comedy show thrown into the mix: "Fetching," written by Amy Harris of Sex and the City fame. The whole of AOL On is the brainchild of the team from 5min, the video syndication network that AOL bought for $65 million, coincidentally at the same exact time as it bought TechCrunch.
Another contrast to YouTube: a focus on a simplified interface. While the homepage will have a search window that lets you access some 320,000 videos at launch, AOL On will also be offering a curated selection as well: simple tabs with subject headings like lifestyle and health will take you to a selection of videos that will change regularly; and a playlist on the homepage will focus on a slide-deck of nine different pieces of content.
AOL's idea here is to capitalize on the growing interest in watching online video, and specifically professionally produced online video - evidenced as well by YouTube now moving into a more premium content channels; sites like Hulu continuing to gain ever more momentum; and, closer to home, HuffPo launching the "HuffingtonPost Streaming Network."
While some of this video under the AOL umbrella may not be getting the audience scale it needs to monetize that well on individual sites, the hope seems to be that if you consolidate all of it on to a single platform, that will create the kind of audience needed to drive much better returns on ads. Taken together AOL says the holdings catapult it into a top-10 video platform, with 861 million video streams per month, and a total of 2.4 billion minutes consumed.
For now, the site will be run as the main websites are - no paywalls and funded by ads, which will come in the form of pre-rolls to the videos. When I asked whether there were plans to also introduce paid services into the mix, Harnevo would not rule it out.