Director McG explains a scene on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures'… (Richard Foreman, Warner…)
AOL has recruited some Hollywood heavyweights to revitalize its struggling year-old online entertainment site Cambio, aimed at teens and young adults — a demographic coveted by advertisers.
Reality television producer Mark Burnett and director McG, best known for the "Charlie's Angels" movies and NBC's spy comedy "Chuck," will create original Web shows with production spending as big as any prime-time series.
AOL and its investment partners — brand strategist MGX Lab and Jonas Group, which manages such musical acts as the Jonas Brothers, Demi Lovato and Jordin Sparks — are betting that recognizable screenwriters, actors and directors are the digital catnip needed to draw a greater share of the 49 million people ages 12 to 24 who go online.
"It's a very saturated marketplace. 'The Internet is almost full,'" said Cambio General Manager Nathan Coyle, quoting bestselling author Seth Godin's observations about the explosion of online video, blogs and social network posts. "The way that we're tackling that challenge and putting ourselves on the path to success is through great partnerships with household names, both on screen as well as off screen."
Cambio relied on star power when it launched in June 2010, putting teen heartthrobs the Jonas Brothers and other artists in the spotlight. The Jonases held live chats, uploaded tour videos and still photos, and promoted their latest songs.
But like a top-40 single, Cambio's popularity has fallen off the charts. The number of monthly visitors dropped to 663,000 in August from 1.4 million a year ago, according to measurement firm ComScore Media Metrix. Its numbers are dramatically smaller than those of other teen websites, such as market leader Alloy Digital Network, which captured 22.4 million users last month, ComScore said.
Some digital media analysts expressed skepticism about Cambio's new strategy of spending big money on big names for a medium that has yet to deliver big advertising dollars.
"When they run that kind of programming on cable channels, they're making money on it," said Mike Vorhaus, president of Magid Advisors, a digital media consulting firm. "These sorts of things … feel like you're spending a lot of money on the come. I'm not confident it's as effective a strategy as building up lower-cost, more-organic content."
In April, AOL recruited Coyle, a digital media agent at Creative Artists Agency, to hit the restart button for the site, whose name means "change" in Spanish.
Coyle said the reimagined Cambio combines new scripted Web series with music, celebrity and fashion news, in hopes of fostering community and conversation. He plans to exploit the sizable reach of AOL's digital assets — including AOL Instant Messenger, AOL Music and video game website Joystiq — to promote these new offerings to the intended audience.
Cambio will lead with its A-list.
"This goes back to my talent agent days," Coyle said. "Talent matters. Talent resonates. Talent has the ability to hunt for and create an audience."
Burnett, executive producer of such popular TV series as "Survivor," "The Voice" and "Shark Tank," said he was searching for content that would be equally addictive online. He settled on a familiar dinner-table topic for teens and parents: preparing for tests about classic literature. This insight led to "Cliff Notes," comedic animated video shorts adapting literary works, starting with William Shakespeare.
"Shakespeare is one of the greatest writers in the history of the world, but it's hard to read," Burnett said. "If you watch a five-minute video, and it's done comedically, irreverently, South Park-y, when you go and read the books you'll have a better chance."
McG is the executive producer of "Aim High," a series of six Web shorts of up to eight minutes in length about a high school student with a secret double life as a spy. Premiering Oct. 18, the show is directed by "Diary of a Wimpy Kid's" Thor Freundenthal and stars Jackson Rathbone of the "Twilight" films and Aimee Teegarden of the NBC TV series "Friday Night Lights."
"Aim High" is a co-production of Warner Bros. Digital and Dolphin Entertainment, a company that specializes in creating live-action programs for children and young adults such as Nickelodeon's TV musical "Spectacular!" and Cartoon Network's "Tower Prep."
Dolphin President Bill O'Dowd said "Aim High" is the first of four to six original Web series the production company hopes to create for Cambio. If successful, these online shows could attract cable-like ratings of as many as 8 million viewers per episode over the course of the month, he predicted.
O'Dowd said the potential advertising revenue, along with the sale of international TV distribution rights, justifies budgets close to the $500,000 to $600,000 spent to produce a 22-minute situation comedy for cable TV.
"If you can make the economics work, it's not too dissimilar to a sitcom on Nickelodeon or Disney," O'Dowd said, referring to "Aim High's" per-minute costs.