WheelsTV Takes to the On-Demand Road

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Start-up WheelsTV has begun production of original programming for its launch next year, and has crafted a video-on-demand offering that will include mini-test drives of autos for car shoppers.

The new channel’s management pioneered the creation of auto-related TV programming through Global Television Network Ltd. That company produced Wild About Wheels, which first aired on Discovery Channel and then moved to Speedvision.

“It wasn’t in the game plan 20 years ago to start a cable network, but we discovered something,” said James Barisano, chairman of WheelsTV and a founder of Global. “There’s a big broad audience of people who just love the automobile.”

LIFESTYLE NET

WheelsTV, billing itself as an automotive-lifestyle network, has kicked off production of new episodes of not only magazine-format Wild About Wheels, but has started work on new series such as Motor of Fact, which will put viewers behind the wheel of new vehicles as they’re put through their paces; Hot Streets, a series that probes the teen-aged “tuner” set; True Top Speed, where cameras ride with professional race car drivers; and Bet Your Car, a game show.

In addition, WheelsTV has also forged a strategic marketing relationship with Edmunds.com (www.edmunds.com), a Web site offering car-buying information.

The site will also have its own show on the network and will supply VOD content: three-minute video test drives of the Top 200 cars and trucks.

WheelsTV’s program lineup will be 80% original and 20% acquired, with the channel looking to fill in part of its daytime schedule with off-network shows — potentially series such as The Dukes of Hazzard and Knight Rider. There are also hundreds of movies available.

“We talked about Saturday night at the drive-in,” Barisano said.

The network is starting out with a library of 200 hours of finished programming, as well as thousands of hours of car-related raw content from over the years that can be repurposed for future shows.

WheelsTV is talking to MSOs, such as Comcast Corp., about its service, according to Greg Willis, a Food Network veteran who is now senior vice president of network development for WheelsTV.

“You’re hitting all our hot buttons,” Willis said one top cable operator told him.

Essentially, the network wants to do for cars, trucks and motorcycles what Food Network did for food: to appeal to not just ardent enthusiasts, but a broader audience as well.

“The core for Food [Network] initially was the foodies, people who were really into cooking,” Willis said. “We broadened that network by appealing to a lifestyle audience. Emeril is a good example. … It’s also entertainment as well as food, and we’re going to do the same with shows along the lines of Monster Garage.”

NOT A RACING NET

WheelsTV sees an opportunity in that it claims there is no other lifestyle network currently dedicated to autos. Once Speedvision was acquired by Fox Cable Networks Group — and the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) was made the core of its schedule — its focus shifted to being a racing and motor-sports network, according to Barisano.

“That opens the window for us,” Willis said.

And the current high-rated, car-related series on the air now are scattered around the dial, like Monster Garage on Discovery and Pimp My Ride on MTV: Music Television. And Fine Living does programming on luxury cars. So WheelsTV aspires to be the “hub” for auto programming, the way that ESPN is the destination for sports fans.

“You can find this sort of programming scattered here, there and everywhere, but there is no one destination [for cars], like The Weather Channel or ESPN for sports, and that’s what we’re all about,” Barisano said.

Willis is especially bullish about the network’s VOD offering, which he claims will appeal not only to consumers but to advertisers, both national and local.

“We’re developing a VOD offering that’s unique to the network, the 'Top 200’ test-drive showing three-minute content that is a walk-around and test drive of the vehicle,” Willis said.

At any one time one-third of the population is in the market for a new car, according to Barisano.

WheelsTV will also be offering cable operators original broadband content, possibly the Top 200 car reviews and test drives, and will be shooting the network’s programming in HDTV, another attractive lure for MSOs.

WheelsTV is hoping for a lot of upside on the advertising side, and had enlisted another cable veteran, Gig Barton, formerly of Court TV, as its senior vice president of ad sales.

Consultant Rob Stengel, former programming chief at Continental Cablevision Inc., is advising WheelsTV’s board.

The auto network — which has opened sales offices in New York and Detroit — is chasing after traditional advertising from the expected categories such as automakers, after-parts manufacturers and insurers.

“You wouldn’t create this channel without an eye on the big players in the market,” Barton said, referring to auto manufacturers like General Motors Corp.

Barton said GM’s media buying unit, Mediaworks, called up Barisano when WheelsTV was announced. “They said, 'We heard you guys are launching a network, please keep us informed,’” Barton recalled. “This is their dream.”

Barisano pointed out that during the next three years, 50 “nameplates,” or car brands, will be introduced — and they all need to be advertised.

But WheelsTV also sees an opportunity to tap into the marketing dollars that the car manufacturers spend on local events, and to take print ads from the 220 car-buff magazines now in the market, much like Home & Garden Television “brought a whole new category of print advertising to television,” Barton said.

To get a piece of Detroit’s marketing money, the network plans to get involved with shows run by local car and motorcycle clubs, and with events that car makers like Jeep have staged to attract potential buyers, for example.

“We will get involved with those major advertisers to bring consumers to those events,” Willis said.

And product placement is also part of the network’s ad strategy. It has retained Norm Marshall & Associates, the leading automotive product-placement firm, as its agency, according to Willis.

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