With its "American Chopper" reality hit, Discovery Networks' Discovery Channel has unleashed a beast cable TV competitors are copying.
More importantly, the new wave of car and motorcycle customization shows are attracting audiences of hard-to-reach young males, plus auto, car parts and videogame advertisers. Tuners, as those car-crazed males are called, are coming back for more, and auto aftermarket and other marketers like this demographic.
Discovery's first success in the genre was "Monster Garage," which debuted in June 2002 and stars Jesse James, the tattoo-armed proprietor of Long Beach, Calif.-based car customization shop West Coast Choppers.
But Discovery's year-old "American Chopper," featuring the dysfunctional antics of owners of an East Coast motorcycle customization shop, scored higher ratings from January through May 9, a 3 household share vs. a 2 share, according to Nielsen Media Research. And its momentum is picking up.
Much of the allure of "Chopper" is the frequent sparring between the show's rough-edged father-and-son stars-Paul "Senior" Teutul, 54, and Paul "Junior," 29. This rough give and take creates a testosterone-fueled tension as they build eye-popping motorcycles together.
But the Teutuls of Orange County Choppers in Rock Tavern, N.Y., also inspire poignant moments, such as the family's RV excursion to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington to create a chopper honoring prisoners of war and missing-in-action soldiers.
The Teutuls reached pop icon status after their appearance for AOL 9.0 in a commercial that broke during this year's Super Bowl. OCC is selling significantly more T-shirts these days.
Currently, there are more than 30 reality-makeover TV shows on the air in various genres, says Clark Bunting, exec VP-Discovery Networks U.S.
Car customization programs are among the fastest growing, and the seed began with "Monster Garage." Discovery got attention for a special a few years ago about the history of Harley-Davidson's V-Rod bike, and the demographics revealed some of the highest viewer household incomes and education levels the network had seen, Mr. Bunting says.
It took the network "a couple of quarters" for advertisers to really latch onto the "Monster Garage" concept, says Mr. Bunting. Soon advertisers came aboard, realizing "Jesse is an artist and people see the dignity in the way this guy makes his living," Mr. Bunting says.
In January, Discovery added "American Hot Rod," featuring car-customizing legend Boyd Coddington.
60% MALE VIEWERS
Discovery's trio of shows in the genre managed to attract an average of 60% male viewers but also lowered the overall average age of the network's viewers to 39 from 47 in the past 18 months, Mr. Bunting says. In the first quarter of 2004, Discovery says, the three shows pulled some of the highest audiences of males between 18 and 34 years old on the Discovery Channel. The biggest categories of advertisers for the programs are automakers, moviemakers and auto parts suppliers, including retail chain AutoZone.
Not all the programs scrambling to come aboard the car and chopper movement are scoring huge ratings yet, but several are gradually gaining awareness.
Viacom's MTV broke into the genre with "Pimp My Ride," which debuted in March from Southern California's West Coast Customs shop. The show, hosted by rapper Xzbit, takes a Cinderella-type approach to making over clunker cars into respectably hot vehicles. Nielsen says it scored a 2 share through May 9.
On Viacom's Spike TV, "Ride With Funkmaster Flex" scored a 1 household share with 1.3 million viewers in the latest period, according to Nielsen. The Speed Channel's "Tuner Transformation" and "Dream Car Garage" attracted 132,000 and 100,000 viewers respectively in the period.
Discovery's sibling TLC recently introduced "Overhauling," which customizes the cars of unsuspecting owners.
Richard Sirvaitis, president-CEO of Interpublic Group of Cos.' General Motors Mediaworks, New York, says the car shows "re-emphasize the love affair with the automobile." The shows draw younger demographics and have started to attract the sought-after hip-hop crowd, he adds.
$2 billion business
Younger consumers are investing big bucks customizing their cars and trucks, creating a contemporary version of the baby boomers' 1960s muscle-car era. Americans spend more than $2 billion a year customizing their vehicles, and some 74% of these tuners are from 18 to 24 years old, says the Specialty Equipment Market Association.
"We started learning tuners were our audience," says Tim Rosta, senior VP-sponsorship development and integrated marketing at MTV.
Mr. Rosta says 84% of "Pimp My Ride's" audience is between the ages of 12 and 34 and 59% are males. "Advertisers didn't have anyplace to connect with this audience," he says. The show's advertisers include Toyota Motor Sales USA's Scion sub-brand car line, Bridgestone/Firestone of North America, Guitar Center music stores, BP's Castrol motor oil and, in the videogame category, Sony Corp.'s PlayStation 2, Nintendo of America and Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox.
Advertisers' products are often integrated into the redone cars with makeovers costing thousands of dollars.
After years of producing boring cars, the auto industry's new drive to performance vehicles is helping push the customization movement via cable, says Jim Sanfilippo, exec VP of Omnicom Group's AMCI consultancy. "There'll be a proliferation of these shows more than a consolidation for some time because there are a lot a topics to cover and ways to do it," he says.