Before joining AOL about a decade ago, Gabriel Lewis had never worked in a corporate environment.
The current head of AOL Studios and AOL On Originals has a background in TV production, working on animated and reality series — or “whatever I was paid to write for,” he joked during a recent interview with StreamDaily.
It’s because of his experience as a “creative guy” that he still views content through a writer’s lens. “Story is very important to me,” Lewis said.
Working for the media giant has taught him to do what’s right for the business as well as the audience – a lesson that he says guided the idea for HuffPost Live, which he co-created with Roy Sekoff. He now brings that instinct to AOL On’s original programming, where he led creative development and production since January ’13 before taking over the operation in October.
As the company moves ahead with an ambitious plan to grow its video division and boost AOL On Network’s international presence, original content is a core focus.
“Our strategy that we’ve developed on the video side is basically a pyramid,” said chairman & CEO Tim Armstrong during a global conference last December. While that business strategy is grounded by syndicated partnerships with cable companies (Discovery, ESPN) and a programmatic marketplace for content distribution and advertising (following the acquisition of Adap.tv this summer), at the top of that pyramid is a high-quality slate of productions, Armstrong said.
Last year was the first time the network had a focused editorial position around original video, and the channel’s “Authentic voices, remarkable stories” tagline will continue to guide the 2014-15 slate. “I think our focus sets us apart,” said Lewis.
Eyes on the prize
From a business perspective, investing in short-form, docu-style content makes sense. Having a consistency in programming gives Originals a distinct voice among other digital networks that are also producing their own content. It also gives viewers a sense of what the brand is about. Lewis says this year they’ll continue to focus on creating a tent pole series within each of the AOL channels like entertainment, style, auto or tech.
But there’s another reason to continue producing within the non-fiction genre.
“Scripted is difficult in general – whether it’s traditional or digital – to do right. And I think promoting a narrative, scripted series online is extra difficult,” Lewis said. “So part of our approach was to continue to tap into what we had seen working with our audiences.”
By the numbers
Viewers have responded well to the launches. By mid-December, original programs announced at the NewFronts last year had garnered 100 million views internationally (Omniture).
Before the summer, AOL video properties were pulling in about 35 to 45 million monthly uniques in the U.S., according to comScore online video rankings. After the launch of originals, that number quickly began to grow, and by December, they were attracting 76.2 million views per month in the U.S. Even though it’s difficult to establish a direct link between that growth and original programming, it’s clear that investing in video content, syndicated partnerships and content distribution is paying off.
Shows that feel special
AOL Studios produced just four of the 15 originals launched this past year, and Lewis says he doesn’t have a vested interested in them creating the entire slate this year, either. That’s because he knows that the path from inspiration to idea to execution is fraught with difficulty. If it makes more sense for a third-party producer to capture the magic and beauty of an idea, that’s great, he said.
“It’s better for us and our audience.”
Third-party producers don’t need to pitch with a pilot or a sizzle reel – they simply need to have a good idea that aligns with AOL’s current programming. The one piece of advice he would give to those who want to pitch to AOL is to “watch what we’ve produced so far because we are going to have that continuity.”
Often an idea revolves around a particular talent, but this isn’t a requirement if the concept stands on its own, Lewis said.
AOL does not order or commission pilots, and IP ownership varies from series to series. When making deals with third-party producers, the network tries to be “reasonable,” he said.
“Inasmuch as any network commissioning content will ideally want to own or control as much of the property as they can, we also view our series as partnerships and are sensitive to our partners’ needs.”
Most of the series feature stars that already come with their own fan base. The show that generated the most buzz was #CandidlyNicole. Nicole Richie’s charmingly irreverent attitude could be credited to pulling in one million viewers per episode – who else could joke around with their dad about tampons and “trimming a bush”? But Richie is also active online and plugged the show on her Twitter account, the content of which the series is based on.
“We don’t want to just pay a celebrity to be involved and (have them) just show up,” said Lewis. “Nicole promoted the series pretty constantly throughout the entire run. That’s what we look for when we’re working with folks and it definitely has an impact.”
While AOL has committed to a programming genre, they continue to experiment with format. #CandidlyNicole, which fostered interaction with the audience and the show itself, was a weekly rollout. Other series like Flat Out (pictured on top), which has a more serious narrative style as it follows a teenage NASCAR driver, was uploaded all at once.
The network wanted to test out the formats and see how audiences responded to the different methods, including posting a handful of episodes at a time. Binging has had its pluses, says Lewis, because the show quickly amasses additional views.
As one tweet promoting Richie’s series said, “You can finish at least six episodes during your lunch hour!” That kind of viewing appeals to many.
“But since the internet very much operates in the news cycle and our partner sites and sites in general are always looking for what’s new, what’s happening at this very moment, if you batch upload you may lose opportunities to promote new episodes down the line,” Lewis said.
He adds that future formats will be judged on a case-by-case basis, with the strategy dictated by the content of the creative.
After such a successful year, AOL is also in a good position to study user behavior, which can help influence what they produce and how they present it.
“We want to know what people want and we leverage data as best we can to understand what people are enjoying. And then we try and tailor our content to some degree, and we’ll do the same with platforms.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated Gabriel Lewis has been at AOL On Originals since October. In fact, Lewis has been responsible for creative development and production for Originals since January 2013.