AOL Video: Close But No TiVo

The Time Warner unit's new video site gets high marks for content, but tests the patience with compulsory commercial viewing

By Catherine Holahan

Little in life is free. So I was skeptical when AOL (TWX) launched a video site on Aug. 3, just one day after announcing the elimination of broadband subscription fees. Would AOL attempt to hook my attention with funny viral clips and then, after a few weeks, demand fees?

Turns out the content is fabulous—and free. The site features more than 45 video-on-demand channels that stream millions of clips ranging from humorous home movies to hard-hitting news. The home page serves as both a TV and ratings guide, explaining in five words or less the focus of each station, the most recent content, and the most-viewed clips. There is also a "Hot 10" list directing users to the 10 most-watched videos on the Web that day.

Many of the top clips are quirky user-created short features of the sort that flood YouTube and iFilm every hour. Think kooky college kids, homemade spoofs, funny ads and animals, and video blogs. The day I was surfing around, the "Hot 10" featured a clip about crazy cats and a short showing soccer fans head-butting strangers. Either one could be seen on any of a hundred video sites.


There's not much special about AOL's user-created page, called UnCut Video. The channel has all the features now standard on viral video sites. Videos are searchable by genre, tags, keywords, most popular, highest rated, and most talked about. Links below each video allow users to rate, save, and send clips to friends. A prominent orange button at the top of every page links to a site allowing users to upload, label, and sort their own videos (see, 8/3/06, "YouTube: Entertainment for Everyone").

What sets AOL apart from its competition is the breadth and scope of its other channels. It is here that AOL video proves it isn't some fly-by-night startup, but a company with the backing of a media giant. AOL's channels marry original content with segments from Time Warner-owned stations such as CNN, TBS, and the Cartoon Network, to name just a few. AOL also has content agreements with the likes of Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Spike TV, TV Land, TV Guide, Sorpresa!, A&E, the History Channel, and TNT.

AOL's news channel, for example, is packed with breaking news clips and unedited video from CNN, the Associated Press, ABC, CBS, Reuters, and the Weather Channel, among others. It also features highlights from nightly news programs as well as entire segments from news magazine shows. The news search capability makes it easy to zero in on particular stories or subjects and often returns extensive results.


The celebrity channel prominently includes content from Extra! and Time Warner-owned online affiliate, which recently made headlines by breaking a story on A-list actor Mel Gibson's arrest for drunk driving. The celebrity station also features two channels focusing specifically on Latin and African American entertainers.

AOL's music channels include full-length videos from AOL and MTV's networks. A kid-friendly channel shows clips from popular Nickelodeon cartoons such as SpongeBob SquarePants as well as singsong AOL videos aimed at the kindergarten set. The Comedy Channel broadcasts the highest-rated viral humor videos as well as Comedy Central content. The sports channel features extreme sports clips, highlights from televised games, and athlete interviews from major news organizations.

Also setting AOL apart is the length of its clips. Videos range from minute-long clips to full-length programs. On the sports channel, for example, there is an original comedy series about a sports radio station titled Sports Bloggers Live. For former WB fans, the site broadcasts full-length shows from the now-defunct network, including once popular cartoons Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain. There are full-length classics on the "Gone But Not Forgotten" station.


Regardless of the length, clips load fast because they are streamed rather than downloaded. It is possible to download full-length, DVD quality videos, but AOL charges for some content. The cost is typically $1.99 per episode. Once downloaded, videos can be viewed on several devices, such as portable media players and multiple computers, and stored in an account. AOL also offers unlimited audio and video downloads via its Music Now site for $9.95 a month. Currently, the site is offering a free 30-day trial. It does not sell movies, instead focusing its video site on movie trailers.

With all the content coming in from users, networks, and other AOL units, search is key. Fortunately, AOL does a good job. Videos are sorted into categories and subcategories. Each channel also has tabs that show what is "hot" and watched now.

The search feature typically returns related content. This is true even in the more difficult viral video category where content is reliant on user-created tabs. AOL uses a "visual crawling" search that combines the efforts of AOL, its Google (GOOG) partner, and others. When AOL can't return results from its own page, a query in the general search bar returns results from the most popular video sites including YouTube, Yahoo! (YHOO), Google Video, iFilm, and AtomFilms.


So is AOL the best thing to happen to TV since DVR, or is there a catch? The catch is commercials, and lots of them. Ads are appended to the beginning of seemingly every video and, unlike with television, there is no way to avoid them. They can't be fast-forwarded. The channel can't be changed until they go away. AOL doesn't even allow users to skip the commercials, unlike other sites such as iFilm.

Even worse, the same commercial is typically tagged to the beginning of many videos in the genre, forcing users to hear the same pitch to apply for a loan or buy a new soft drink again and again and again. By the end of a few hours on AOL video, even I felt I needed to refinance my mortgage—and I rent.

If not for the commercials, AOL would deserve a near perfect rating. Its content is among the best on the Web. On AOL there is more than just mindless entertainment, cheap laughs, and teenagers sharing way too much in video clips. There is some well-thought-out programming and news on AOL's site.

Understandably, AOL has to make money, and it has decided ads are the way to do it (see, 8/3/06, "AOL Casts Its Fate With Ads"). But the experience would be better if, at the very least, AOL allowed ads to be skipped after an initial viewing or differentiated its ad content a bit more.

Still, commercials are a small price to pay for everything AOL offers. After all, little in life is free.

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