All told, AOL has greenlit 16 new and returning original series for 2014-15. The lineup includes one of the first productions from NewForm, the new digital studio formed in partnership with Discovery Communications, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard; a docuseries with celebs paying tribute to a persona hero, exec produced by thesp Zoe Saldana; a show about comedians tutoring kids on the craft, hosted by "SNL" alum Kevin Nealon and exec produced by Ellen DeGeneres; and a docuseries about YouTube creators from multichannel network Fullscreen.
"We are doubling down, but we are not big enough to spend $100 million on a 'House of Cards,'" said Ran Harnevo, president of AOL Video. "Our strategy is about delivering authentic voices and connecting with audiences."
AOL also is announcing an agreement Nielsen -- which the companies billed as the first of its kind -- to participate in a beta-test program designed to provide TV-comparable audience measurement across all of AOL's new series. The Nielsen trial will deliver GRPs (gross ratings points) that reflect the audience reach by age and gender for AOL's new programming as an extension of Nielsen Digital Program Ratings, which currently measures TV-originated content viewed online. AOL also will tag associated advertising using Nielsen's Online Campaign Ratings, designed to provide a consistent measure of audience across TV, online and mobile platforms.
The new shows join AOL's previously announced first TV-length original series, "Connected," an adaptation of an Israeli reality show to be set in New York City in which five cast members record their lives using personal handheld cameras, and four returning shows, including Nicole Richie's reality series "#CandidlyNicole." AOL previously announced shortform series "Park Bench," produced by and featuring Steve Buscemi holding unscripted conversations with friends and New Yorkers.
In addition to its originals, AOL last week announced a licensing deal with Miramax to stream free, ad-supported movies from Miramax's library, which includes such titles as "Pulp Fiction," "Chicago," "Good Will Hunting," "The English Patient" and "Life Is Beautiful."
AOL is presenting the 2014 lineup to advertising execs tonight at its Digital Content NewFronts event at Duggal Greenhouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Last year, AOL produced 15 shows and sold nine to premium sponsors. It has three returning advertisers -- Citibank for "city.ballet.," about the dancers of the New York City Ballet and narrated and exec produced by Sarah Jessica Parker; and Verizon for two tech shows, "The Future Starts Here," with Tiffany Shlain, and "Hardwired 2.0" hosted by YouTube star Justine Ezarik (iJustine). Richie's "#CandidlyNicole," meanwhile, has been picked up by VH1 with a series order.
Renewing four out of 15 series "is something to be proud of," Harnevo said. "It's a long-term game."
AOL's 2013 original series to date have garnered 160 million views and 67 million unique viewers, according to Harnevo. The four shows it renewed have captured a combined 75 million views since launch.
For most of its series, the creators have strong digital fan bases, Harnevo said, noting that Franco has 2 million Twitter followers. "The definition of celebrities has changed in the digital space," he said.
Here's the list of AOL's newly announced 2014 original series:
"Making a Scene with James Franco": Each episode will feature the thesp and one or more fellow artists discussing their favorite classic scenes from Hollywood cinema -- celebrating the pics by recreating the scenes with an irreverent twist. Produced by Rabbit Bandini Prods. and Trium Entertainment.
"Kevin Nealon's Laugh Lessons": Nealon-hosted series features comedians trying to teach kids comedy lessons. Exec producers are Ellen DeGeneres, Kevin Nealon, Jeff Kleeman Ed Glavin, Andy Lassner, Mary Connelly for Warner Bros.' Telepictures Prods.
"Inspired": Docuseries with celebrities and newsmakers recounting stories behind their most life-changing moments of inspiration, combining interviews, original photos and archival footage. Exec produced by Rick Solomon for NewForm, a partnership of Discovery, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Craig Jacobson, Ed Wilson, Jim Wiatt and Michael Rosenberg.
"My Hero": Exec produced by Zoe Saldana ("Avatar"), who will star in one of the episodes, features celebrities paying a surprise tribute to one person who changed their life by giving them an over-the-top, heartfelt surprise. Produced by Ellen Rakieten Entertainment, a division of Relativity Media and Cinestar Prods.
"Win/Win": Big-name business execs join famous athletes for a day of honest conversation, fun and surprising insights, shot in a fly-on-the-wall style. Exec produced by Mike Tollin and Jon Weinbach for Mandalay Sports Media.
"That's Racist": Actor-comedian Mike Epps explores the back stories of racial stereotypes and ethnic jokes, and how history and fact often distorts into a snide - but sometimes funny -- shorthand. Produced by Andrew Fried for Boardwalk Pictures.
"So Much More": Docuseries about punk-rock singer Tom Gabel, who came out in 2012 as a transgender woman, and her transformation into Laura Jane Grace as well as the lives of other members of the transgender community. Produced by AOL Studios.
"Follow Me": Produced by Fullscreen, series documents lives of digital creators with each episode featuring a different star providing access into their life stories.
"The Road to Disrupt": 12-episode docuseries following five startups competing in the 2013 San Francisco TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield in hopes of winning $50,000 in funding. Produced by AOL Studios. (TechCrunch is owned by AOL.)
"In Short": Five-episode series about a group of actors -- including Katie Holmes ("Miss Meadows"), Jeff Garlin ("The Goldbergs"), Alia Shawkat ("Arrested Development), James Purefoy ("The Following") and Judy Greer ("The Descendants") -- who step behind the camera to create their own short-form documentaries. Produced by Killer Digital, digital production company launched by producer-author Christine Vachon, founder and partner of Killer Films, and Preferred Content managing partner Kevin Iwashina ("Jiro Dreams of Sushi").
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