The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: The 2013 NewFronts

"The Internet needs to be programmed." -AOL's Tim Armstrong at today's AOL NewFront presentation.

This year's NewFront, when the big digital media (AOL, Hulu, Youtube/Google, Yahoo, etc) companies tout their new series and advertising opportunities, is wrapping up in NYC.

Throughout the week, we've seen a variety of different approaches to digital content and once again it's been a mixed bag. Per usual, a lot of the major platforms trot out a celebrity after celebrity (with a few 'web'lebrities sprinkled in) to show off how much they are moving quality of web content forward. And of course, every platform proudly announces how well they truly understand / reach their 'key' audience. At the core of each presentation are a variety of new show announcements - some of which were really interesting, bold and fresh, but mostly it's a lot of the same old dribble. And rather than go through each outlet and critique their offerings, I want to look at two platforms on opposite ends of 'getting it.' First, AOL.

Let me say this: AOL will get views on their video content, but not because their new shows any good. They will get views because they have a platform for it - they can simply program their home page and video page to strategic place their ad sponsored, big name content. In that sense, I guess they are making a strategically safe, smart decision. I really can't argue with that.  However, I would argue it's a short term solution. Are they really driving "viewership" by creating a long term, self-sustaining community - the most valuable part of creating web content? I say no, and here's why.

The 15 uninspired, bland formulaic batch of new shows that AOL announced - mostly notable because people like Sarah Jessica Parker Gweneth Paltrow and Nicole Ritchie are involved - are only premium in name. Celebrities on the web are only valuable if they are engaging with their audiences. They don't truly demand eyeballs, for the most part. That's not really the reason the shows won't work. They could, but on the right platforms. CEO Tim Armstrong was partly right when he said that the 'internet needs to be programmed.' It does, but the problem for AOL is that they aren't really part of programming it. The web is already programmed. People are programming it themselves, 1) through social media (personalized programmed) and 2) through the micro communities that they seek out proactively. For instance, if someone is passionate or interested in home design, they likely already have 2 or 3 sites they visit regularly for that content. Just because AOL does a Jonathan Adler series about design doesn't mean that audience will seek it out. They already have a source for those passions - that show should go to where those users already are! It's push not pull when finding web audiences.

For me, it all comes down to this: AOL shouldn't be playing on this level. If they want to "program" things, keep doing what they've been doing, which is pulling in content that bubbles up to the mainstream. They shouldn't be after niche audiences (who already have established, authentic communities developed online) that don't need AOL to find the content the want. On the other hand, they could make truly bold programming decisions. They should be using their big dollars to create the type of high quality (note - this does not necessarily mean celebrity hosted or produced) content that is must see. That means programming as if they were are TV broadcast network - capitalize on the their bigness and broadness. This is the strategy that Netflix is taking (with success) that Hulu is trying and that, Crackle announced on Thursday.

Crackle is an earnest "major" video site. They aren't often listed in the short list of  go-to video destinations. Still, they have been working hard to become the place for premium, male skewing content. It's a tough market to stand out in, and I have generally negative thoughts on Crackle's destination site approach. However, they should be applauded for making a truly bold foray this year with a variety of solid shows and unique content formats. They are going with a go big or go home attitude and released a slate of really big, expensive seemingly must-watch series / digital movies. And they are doing it smartly too - there is no doubt that the flexible format approach is opening up a pipeline of international sales opportunities that will help cover the cost of these expensive new shows.

It would be easy for Crackle to play it safe and throw a bunch of cheap- but celebrity riddled - crap series at the wall. However, they are taking some real big bets - which is what these cash-laden portals should be doing. They've actually been doing it for years and learning some lessons about what works and what doesn't - remember Gemini Division and Bannen Way. This year they really stepped it up. I'm not super sure how good a Danny Glover action series will be or whether or not a sequel to Joe Dirt will matter - but it's noteworthy, high value programming for a platform that wants to compete. They stand out for that alone.

The takeaway for me is that Crackle doesn't really care about the short term. They want to take the risks that will help them become more and more viable in the long term. If big platforms want premium ad money (or subscription fees), they need truly premium content.  Netflix gets that and they aren't worried about short term maximization either. This is a marathon. Kudos to Crackle for understanding that and 'training' the way they should be.

Finally, a quick mea culpa. I criticized Conde Nast for announcing an even-lamer-than-AOL slate of programming back in March. During the upfront they sort of doubled back and previewed a few genuinely interesting shows (still a lot of garbage mixed in) that live up the potential of their platforms. I really hope they are as good as they look- especially this cool Wired series, The Window.