Cars Gone Wild: Acton Company Looks Beyond Cable, Puts Automotive Video on Internet, Mobile Phones
Say you’ve developed hundreds of hours of video content for a new cable TV channel about Americans’ love affair with their automobiles. Then one day the cable network calls up to say “Oops, we’re out of bandwidth—it’s been eaten up by high-definition and video-on-demand and we can’t add any more TV channels.” What do you do?
If you’re Jim Barisano, you launch your own multimedia publishing and broadcasting empire on the Internet. The CEO of Acton, MA-based Automotive Networks Corporation is a veteran automotive TV producer whose credits include the very first prime-time cable show about cars—the Discovery Channel’s Wild About Wheels, which debuted way back in 1990. Fifteen years later, his company launched WheelsTV with $1 million in seed capital from video-on-demand software provider SeaChange International; freed from the demands of working with the cable networks, over the last two years the company has used its trove of car-related videos to create more than 30 channels of free online video about cars, and pioneered a lucrative market licensing “video test drives” of new car models to car dealerships.
But that was just the first wave of Automotive Networks’ planned expansion. Soon the company will launch a social-networking site focused on cars, and then video channels for Internet-enabled mobile phones. Ask Barisano whether he’d rather have that cable deal back, and he’ll say no. “The beauty of the Internet is that we are basically able to get around the gatekeepers and go directly to the consumer.”
Even before the cable plan dried up, Barisano told me last week, “the ability to deliver video over the Internet was something we had always dreamed of.” The online video channels were the first step. “We got involved with Brightcove [the Cambridge-based Internet video company founded by Jeremy Allaire] back when they were first developing their network.” Brightcove added WheelsTV’s content to its consumer portal, and in exchange WheelsTV got to use the Brightcove player to serve its videos. “It’s proved very successful for them and for us,” says Barisano.
The company’s newest videos provide a series of profiles of new cars called “101s.” “In one minute you get all the key data—the pricing, the miles per gallon, the transmission setup, the styling,” explains Barisano. “Dealers run them on laptops in their showrooms and can e-mail them out in response to phone or email inquiries.” The 101s can also be found in the automotive areas of the MSN and AOL’s portal sites and will soon show up at Vehix.com, one of the top dealer-search sites.
But Internet video is only the second phase of Barisano’s grand plan for WheelsTV. Phase Three: social networking. “What really excites us right now is that we’re about to launch ‘MyWheelsTV Garage,’” says Barisano. “It will remind you of MySpace or Facebook, except that it’s all about people’s relationships with their automobiles. It will have a ton of important information about how to take care of your car, enjoy your car, or lease or buy a car.”
Phase Four: mobile phones. The company is working on a deal with Sprint to make an automotive channel part of the Sprint TV, a service that delivers multiple channels of television programs to cell phones, and it’s also partnering with mobile-video-software house July Systems to create content that customers of other networks will be able to access via their Web browsers. Members of MyWheelsTV Garage will even be able to sign up for personalized alerts pushed to their mobile phones via SMS. “We’ll remind you when your registration is running out, when it’s time to get a new pollution sticker, when there is a recall,” says Barisano. “If you commute from Acton to Cambridge every day down Route 2, for example, we’ll tell you if there’s an accident along the way.”
To keep the plan in motion, WheelsTV is seeking venture partners for an unspecified amount of Series A funding. Barisano is convinced the opportunity is big, especially with the spread of multimedia-capable cell phones. “Nobody goes anywhere in their automobile without a mobile phone,” he notes, meaning the company can complete the circle by reaching people with information about their cars while they’re in their cars.
“We are already leaders in automotive content,” says Barisano. “Then there’s community, which we are launching. The last step is is connectivity via the mobile phone, which changes everything”—and makes cable TV look so 1990s.