NewFront Reviews: AOL, Crackle and YouTube

By Simon Applebaum TV / Video Download Archives

Three of the more colorful and star-powered NewFront events last week happened within 24 hours of each other. Here they are, in order of delivery.

AOL

Venue : Digital Greenhouse, in the midst of the Brooklyn Navy Yard complex. For the only NewFront or Upfront event happening in this borough, AOL divided this facility into two rooms -- one for the presentation, the other for pre- and post-cocktails and appetizers (which were served on racks with room for pita bread and several flavors of hummus, for example). AOL employees huddled in the center of that room, inside a circular bar, to assist in serving drinks and show off programming. The presentation room was part planetarium, part fashion runway with wide semicircular screens on each side and a stage in the center. With more than 2,000 people attending, the room was SRO, and overflow was guided into "The Fish House," a nearby hangar-sized building with sofas, screen and bar on the side. Grade: 4 Jacks

Presentation: Devoted in large part to AOL's expanding lineup of original short-form content, available on any screen, smart TVs included. The point was accented by video president Ran Harnevo under the theme "Connected." TV and digital programming "will become one," Harnevo noted. "We're not here to bash TV or cable. They are going nowhere. TV is not dying. We want to connect it all." A year ago, the celebrities involved in AOL series couldn't make the connection with this crowd in pointed fashion. All but a few rambled on about their lives and the creation of their series before introducing 30-second clips. This go-round, each notable from Zoe Saldana to Mike Epps made their case in a minute or less, followed by their clips. One exception: Transgender punk rocker Laura Jane Grace, offering a powerful solo performance on guitar. Grade: 4.5 Jacks

News : Twelve new series will launch in the coming months, and four of the series launched last spring (including City Ballet, spearheaded by Sarah Jessica Parker) will return for second seasons. Among the notable: Grace's So Much More (about the transgender community), That's Racist (Epps' people on the street exploration of common stereotypes) and Making A Scene With James Franco, in which actors discuss, then irreverently act out, famous moments from classic films (worth expanding into a half-hour series somewhere) and Park Bench (Boardwalk Empire star Steve Buscemi hangs out with average New Yorkers). Also, AOL will present its first half-hour or hour-long series – Connected -- where five NYC residents of different backgrounds tape and share their special family moments. Grade: 4.5 Jacks

Host : Spirited display by all the AOL executives and talent involved, although CEO Tim Armstrong's monologue over why his company's event came to Brooklyn went overboard. We did appreciate the TV history lesson. Grade: 4 Jacks

Overall Grade: 4 Jacks Of AOL's three NewFront efforts to date, this one was the best in staging, visuals and brevity. However, AOL continues to withhold information on premiere dates for their content. And for one project, In Short, the fact that it launched the day before.

Special note : There was a big transportation breakdown getting subway riders to and from AOL's Brooklyn location. Signs advising people where to go from two Brooklyn stops into shuttle buses were late to the scene, the buses were walking distance from both stops on a rainy evening, and going back there were extensive delays due to a truck blocking a narrow Navy Yard street. O Jacks for how this was handled all around.

Crackle

Venue: Cedar Lake Dance's performance space on W. 26th St., another location near the famed HighLine walkway. Classic brick structure with screens all over the stage, and ham/cheese croissants the only lunch item. Grade: 4 Jacks

Presentation : With "TV That Strikes A Cord" as the theme, Sony's digital programming service embraced the notion of the Internet becoming more prominent on smart TV sets. Theirs and other connected TV projects are "becoming the standard mainstay of living around the globe," declared Crackle general manager Eric Berger. What's more, viewers are more apt to stream the content they view if they can't watch it live, as opposed to going on-demand or setting their DVRs, Berger added. From there, Crackle let their original programs and celebrities associated with them do the talking. Grade : 5 Jacks

News : Look for three new half-hour/hour series in the year ahead -- Sequestered (combo jury and mystery drama), Sports Jeopardy! (weekly spinoff of the popular game hosted by Dan Patrick) and Tightrope, bringing back the 1950s black-and-white Screen Gems undercover drama with a twist. Star Mike Connors gets replaced by another actor, who takes modern liberties with that role. (John O'Hurley did the honors via a hilarious short video, and Crackle should consider no one else but him to take it on.) As designed by executive producer Bryan Cranston (yes, the Breaking Bad star), both real and fake commercials can be incorporated into the series. Another ad development: Crackle will create interactive "C-Roll" messages for all of its original series. One letdown: no premiere dates. Grade: 4.5 Jacks

Host : Berger made his case in a smooth, naturally likeable manner. He was one of the more engaging executives in front of a NewFront audience so far. Cranston made a personal appeal for Tightrope sponsors. "I've always had a thing for dicks (as in undercover operatives)," he said. "Hope we can count on some dough so we can get this show on the road." Grade: 5 Jacks

Overall Grade: 4.5 Jacks Great attitude, flow and fun. Declare when the content premieres, and you land a cool 5 Jacks.

Google/YouTube Brandcast

Venue : Madison Square Garden Theater, once home to The CW's annual upfront (and will be the new home to next Wednesday's TBS-TNT event). Brighter than ever, thanks to the recent billion-dollar makeover of the entire MSG complex), visitors were treated to a long lobby with pix of YouTube personalities in action on either side, followed by a food court with all the edibles supplied by Tastemade and other YT content suppliers. You couldn't get enough of the veggie gyozas, pizza pie cupcakes or Japanese fried chicken nuggets. The stage was flanked by large craggy structures with neon lines separating them. Grade: 5 Jacks

Presentation : Sure nominee for the most spectacular opening of any 2014 Upfront or NewFront. Against a mash-up of YouTube videos, music and spoken word erupted, literally, from a variety of performers. Mike Reim offered sounds to the Oscar-winning song "Let It Go", beat box flutist Greg Patillo let loose, along with a dance group and tall crooner Puddles the Clown (seven-feet tall). Spectacle personified. A few minutes later, choreographer Travis Wall joined dancer Jaime Goodwin for a pas-de-deux as sketches came to vivid life on a backdrop. Along the way to more performances, YouTube executives (including new CEO Susan Wojoicki) discussed the impact their service makes nonstop on world culture. "I believe in the power of video and the opportunity to change the way that people connect, learn, advertise, share and interact," she said. "And I believe we're just getting started." In another special -- and impromptu – moment, personality Bethany Mota shared how at age 13 creating YouTube videos was her escape from being a victim of bullying. Grammy nominee Janelle Monae rocked the house down the stretch, and after the majority of Upfront/NewFront events played his hit ad infinitum, Pharrell Williams arrived in person to do "Happy." Grade: 5 Jacks

News : After leaving last year's audience news-less, as in no details on forthcoming content or initiatives, YouTube offered two programming tidbits and one advertiser morsel this time. First, the proposed Dreamworks TV service planned for cable/satellite distribution will take a detour to YouTube, launching there this summer (exact date TBA). Family-targeted, the service will mix live-action and animated programming. DanceOn, another YouTube channel attraction, will launch Dance School Diaries and Every Single Step, two short subject series from So You Think You Can Dance executive producer and judge Nigel Lythgoe. On the ad front, YouTube introduced Google Preferred, where sponsors can buy time and features on the top five percent of YT material (by audience size), grouped into 14 categories. Early advertisers include Heineken and Johnson & Johnson. Grade: 4 Jacks

Host : X Games/Olympics commentator Sal Masekela anchored the affair in crisp fashion, and all the YouTube executives held up their portions well. Grade: 4 Jacks 

Overall Grade: 5 Jacks on style, 4 Jacks on substance The wide world nature of YouTube comes through loud and clear. Now let's get more specific on where that world is headed in the near-term. Bring on more content announcements.

5 Jacks - Excellent
4 Jacks - Very Good
3 Jacks - Good
2 Jacks - Fair
1 Jack - Poor
0 Jacks -Worse than bad

Next up: NewFronts season wraps with PBS, National Geographic and Maker Studios.

Until the next time, stay well and stay tuned!

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