AOL is joining the live-video gold rush


When AOL-owned TechCrunch hosts its fifth Disrupt NY conference next week, people interested in following the event will be able to do so for the first time on Facebook. The tech publisher will live stream the entire multiday conference, which spotlights emerging startups, to its Facebook audience of 2.1 million followers.

This won’t be a typical smartphone-quality Facebook Live broadcast, either. All of the content, including main-stage panels and backstage interviews, will be TV-grade. Whereas almost all Facebook Live content to date has been shot using mobile devices, the TechCrunch production will be handled by a six-person video team working with a tech firm called Telescope to bring high-quality broadcasts to the platform, the company said.

The TechCrunch Disrupt plans are part of a broader effort at AOL to do more live video, especially as live video has its moment thanks to Facebook. 

“It’s top of mind,” said Jimmy Maymann, president of content and consumer brands at AOL, which held its fifth annual NewFronts presentation for advertisers on Tuesday night. “We’ve been looking at our portfolio the past six months to see how we can weave live into each of the brands.”

Perhaps the biggest opportunity for AOL’s live video efforts is in its ongoing “Build” afternoon talk-show series. The company already produces more than four hours of live video content a day out of its headquarters in New York’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. That’s about to change as the company opens a production studio in downtown Manhattan, where it will produce live interviews in the vein of legacy talk-show brands like NBC’s “Today” and ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

To get a sense of how important live is for AOL going forward, the new 13,412-square-foot studio will also be equipped with equipment necessary to produce live virtual reality and 360-degree video content — another area of focus for the company.

It’s all part of an effort to grow the “Build” brand beyond its root as an afternoon talk show. AOL plans to up the number of “Build” broadcasts from 550 in 2015 to more than 700 this year. And the content wont be restricted to 30-minute celebrity interviews. While that will continue, AOL will also expand into live music performances and fashion shows. For instance, its NewFronts event, which featured a performance by Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa and Demi Lovato, was also broadcast across AOL.

AOL’s intentions with live video also go beyond “Build,” and will include all of its major publishing units. For instance, tech blogs like Engadget and TechCrunch will do more live streaming coverage of events like CES and Disrupt. AOL is also planning to do more custom events along the lines of TechCrunch’s “1st and Future,” in which startups pitched their technologies to the NFL ahead of this year’s Super Bowl. On the Huffington Post side, the focus will remain on politics and audience participation, especially as the U.S. presidential race heats up.

And the content won’t be restricted to AOL-owned platforms. With the attention Facebook is giving to live video, AOL is also joining the fray. Nearly 75 percent of AOL’s monthly video viewership is happening outside of the company’s owned-and-operated channels, according to Maymann. (The company did 595.6 million video views on its sites in the U.S. in March, according to comScore.)

“At the end of the day, we can’t change how consumers behave. We would love for all of them to come to us, but Facebook has a utility that is contagious,” said Maymann. “You have to treat it like an extension of your owned-and-operated. That’s just the name of the game now.”

As AOL pushes more into live streaming, it’s also making an effort to bring most of the production in-house. Sixty percent of its original programming from 2015 was produced by its AOL Studios team, up from around 10 percent in previous years. Overall, the team put out 41,000 videos last year, a number it’s expecting to triple in 2016, according to Maymann.

The investment in the AOL Studios team, which now consists of 80 producers, editors, sound experts and other video professionals, has also shaped how the company approaches social and video. There are no social or audience development experts within AOL Studios; instead they’re staffed inside each of the publishing brands. AOL Studios’ job is pure service, help the publishing units make the content they want.

“It’s very flexible in the way that we have set the team up. They can do anything from a six-second Vine to a one-hour live segment,” said Maymann. “It’s important, because they need to power a whole portfolio of brands.”

Image via AOL

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