Spring is an important time for the television networks. The leading broadcasters provide flashy previews of their upcoming fall primetime schedules, hoping to create media buzz for new shows and woo sponsors in what the industry calls the upfront season.

So what did AOL think it was doing, inviting advertisers and journalists to attend AOL's First Look event in New York City earlier this week? Is AOL ready to give the NBC peacock a run for its feathers, or is it just tossing a self-effacing wink at the CBS (NYSE:CBS) eye?

The answer rests somewhere in the middle, apparently. Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX) online service, working hard to reinvent itself as a free traffic hub as it weans itself off decaying subscription revenue, has five shows in the works, and you can't blame it for wanting a little primetime loving.

Into the AOL screening room
AOL's invitations pitched the allure of the company's programming slate to potential sponsors:

  • Your message delivered
  • Your audience engaged
  • Your brand amplified

Those who weren't in New York City -- like me -- were invited to attend a webcast of the event. So what exactly are these five branded offerings? Glad you asked. Let me take you on the nickel tour.

Shrek the Third Royal Tournament: Coinciding with the next month's anticipated release of DreamWorks Animation's (NYSE:DWA) Shrek the Third, AOL is teaming up with the computer animation studio, as well as Surivor and The Apprentice creator Mark Burnett Productions, in creating a collection of online challenges that will be rolled out over six weeks. Expectations are high for the film; the second installment reigns as the highest-grossing animated film of all-time.

Gold Rush: Burnett's online reality series, which narrowed down a pool of trivia-mowing millions to a treasure-hunting finalist showdown, is back. The grand prize is a cool million bucks in gold bricks. I wasn't overly impressed with last year's show; Burnett is usually a lot better at getting folks interested in the minutiae of ordinary people. I'll give Gold Rush the benefit of the doubt, assuming it will learn from last year's mistakes. And maybe I'm the only one who didn't milk entertainment value out of the series -- it certainly generated healthy traffic for AOL.

Million Dollar Bill: Hoping that consumers won't tire of ways to win a million bucks, AOL's other millionaire-maker will invite visitors to play online games that reveal dollar bill serial numbers. If you have a buck that matches the winning number, you stand to win prizes, including the titular bounty. Can programming be engaging when the odds are this ludicrous? I give this one about the same survival chances as an Andy Richter sitcom.

The Ellen DeGeneres Show: No, the daytime star's show isn't migrating over to AOL. However, it will team up with AOL for segments as DeGeneres travels the country and mixes it up with the locals. As a cross-promotional tool, this could be a great way to turn couch potatoes into desk-chair potatoes, but a lot of that will depend on how well the syndicated television show bleeds into the AOL.com segments.

iLand: Now you're talking. The prize? A tropical island. The game? Millions will be able to participate, whittling down the field to finalists who will inhabit the island as they compete to stay there. Sounds like Burnett's Survivor and Endemol's Big Brother in Web form. Oddly enough, Burnett isn't working on this, though Endemol is. Someone will eventually get an online reality series right. When that happens, it'll be huge, thanks to the perpetually interactive nature of cyberspace. At the very least, iLand could take us one step closer to that reality.

The race to matter
Everyone seems to be diving into video programming these days. From Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO) sending Kevin Sites into military hotbeds, to CNET (NASDAQ:CNET) calling out aspiring filmmakers for its Project Spotlight, the players are here. (Speaking of which, have you checked out our 27-Second Stock Pitch videos?)

With appliances like Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) Apple TV and the leading video game consoles bridging the gap between computers and television, it makes perfect sense for the online heavies to match their programming wits against the conventional networks.

Maybe AOL's First Look didn't set your heart aflutter this time around. Maybe you won't join me in guiding Princess Fiona through an animated maze or rooting for worthy islanders. Something tells me that by this time next year, there will be a busier slate than five offerings on AOL. It might be a first look, but I doubt it'll be the last.

Time Warner, DreamWorks Animation, and Yahoo! have been Motley Fool Stock Advisor newsletter selections over the years. CNET has been singled out twice in the Rule Breakers growth stock subscription service. Follow the preceding links to try either service free for 30 days.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is a "clip culture" fan, but he also knows that no Fool is an iLand. He does own shares in DreamWorks Animation. He is also a member of the Rule Breakers analytical team, seeking out the next great growth stock early in its defiance. The Fool has a disclosure policy.