Reality Shows and Games Rule the Day at AOL’s ‘First Look’ Upfront

AOL clearly feels it hit on something big with last year’s Mark Burnett-produced online reality show Gold Rush. At its “First Look” upfront event in New York yesterday, the Time Warner division showed off a bevy of new original programming heavy on reality-flavored contests and shows with audience participation.

The roster includes a Gold Rush sequel, a contest to win an island, and a gaming tie-in with the upcoming film from DreamWorks’ Shrek franchise. AOL is offering a combination of sponsorships and display advertising, including original rich media formats developed through a new relationship with PointRoll.

“We’ve definitely proven that our audience is extremely receptive to these types of propositions, and our advertisers are equally enthusiastic about AOL bringing these to market,” said Kathy Kayse, EVP of AOL’s Media Networks division.

Games and prizes are the portal’s 2007 themes. With partner Endemol USA, a producer of reality and unscripted shows, it will offer iLand, an interactive reality show that will send contestants to settle and maybe win their own island using only a laptop and the help of online friends. An interactive Shrek game, called Ye Old Shrek the Third Royal Announcement, will offer a six-week gaming experience to coincide with the launch of the third Shrek film. Gold Rush Goes Hollywood, a follow-up to its earlier show of the same name, will let players “turn their pop culture smarts into real gold.”

AOL will also introduce a tie-in with The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Million Dollar Bill, an online game where users can enter the serial numbers from dollar bills to win cash prizes.

In an age when broadcast and cable networks are pushing their video content out to as many digital distribution partners as possible, the idea of exclusive online shows may seem anachronistic. Not so, said Kayse.

“When we talk exclusive, it’s the initial offering we’re bringing to market that provides our consumers an opportunity to interact with programming we’ve created,” she said. “But our real goal is to push that content out any way, both online and offline.”

AOL has deemed its previous exclusive programming initiatives an unbridled success, saying the first iteration of Gold Rush attracted approximately 11 million users and five major advertisers, including Sara Lee.

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