Web Pioneer Goes for Gold

AOL digital chief Conroy stays ahead of broadband demand

Kevin Conroy is in a hurry. Midway through a typical work week that bounces him between New York, Los Angeles and his home in Washington, the AOL executive stopped for an interview at AOL's Rockefeller Plaza offices before catching an evening flight. “Some people attribute this to my personality,” Conroy says, sipping from a towering cup of Starbucks coffee, “but nothing ever moves as fast as I would like it to move.”

Not that he hasn't tried to speed things up. For more than 10 years, Conroy has clamored for providers of entertainment content to keep pace with increasing demand from consumers using ever faster Internet connections. As executive VP of AOL, he's drawing on his pioneering background in online music to bring broadband video to the masses.

When Conroy joined media giant Bertelsmann in 1995, after stints in advertising and marketing at CBS/Fox Video, the Internet was just beginning to show its multimedia potential. As BMG Entertainment's chief marketing officer and president of new technology, he channeled his love of music into creating online portals for BMG artists such as Wu-Tang Clan, which participated in the first ever RealAudio stream.

Innovating in Real Time

Strauss Zelnick, founder of investment firm ZelnickMedia, supported Conroy's efforts while Zelnick was BMG Entertainment's president/CEO, and credits him with pushing the music industry to embrace the Web as a vehicle for promotion and distribution. “What he can be proud of is that he helped conceive of the business in terms of how it developed,” Zelnick says.

Conroy eventually grew impatient with the music industry's failure to reach out to online consumers and jumped at an offer to start AOL Music in 2001. In building an online music destination for AOL subscribers, Conroy drew inspiration from TV networks to create branded channels with the potential to become durable franchises, including the MTV Unplugged-inspired AOL Sessions, featuring in-studio music performances. Alicia Keys kicked off the series that year, which has since featured Paul McCartney and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

As the broadband market began to mature, Conroy saw TV as the next wave. He forged partnerships with TV networks that provided AOL subscribers with exclusive content, including the first pre-broadcast Web debut of a TV series, The WB's Jack & Bobby in August 2004.

Having taken these steps with AOL's subscribers, Conroy says “it was time to take a big step.” Drawing on the library of corporate sibling Warner Bros. to collect a “critical mass” of episodes from some 30 series, AOL launched In2TV, a free, ad-supported broadband TV network, on AOL.com last March.

Although In2TV's streamed offerings like Welcome Back, Kotter may not be the freshest around, Conroy asserts that launching the site “was very much the starting point” and that “first-run content” for download will come. “The best way to build a business,” he says, “is to put legitimate offerings in front of consumers as fast as you possibly can and innovate in the marketplace in real time.”

“A Beautiful Arc”

Conroy is busy developing that fresh content. He's working with reality mogul Mark Burnett on Gold Rush, an interactive treasure hunt that weaves clues into Web vignettes and prime time shows. Likening Conroy's hands-on involvement to that of CBS chief Leslie Moonves on the first season of Survivor (indeed, CBS is partnering with AOL on Gold Rush), Burnett says, “There are some executives who don't mind rolling up their sleeves, and Kevin is that kind of executive.”

Conroy sounds very much like a TV executive when he utters truisms like “Content matters.” But he's hoping to erase the boundaries that prevent entertainment content from flowing freely among platforms. “There's such a beautiful arc here,” he says. “For the longest time, people were viewing [TV and the Web] as conflicting. We've just never seen it that way.”

And time, as always, is precious.

“There are many issues, and they are complex,” Conroy says. “But at the end of the day, consumers are not waiting for us.”