Motor Trend magazine is doing something interesting on the Internet

Taking a long look at Motor Trend On Demand

Motor Trend magazine is doing something interesting on the Internet

Every time I tell a friend my favorite internet thing right now is the Motor Trend On Demand app, they can’t believe it.

“Motor Trend? That magazine from my dentist’s office? Really?”

And, yeah, I get it, they’re an old magazine company but they’re doing something interesting here. Think of it this way: a publication in a somewhat dying industry is producing shows on the internet and publishing them using a combo of free tools like YouTube and Facebook, along with an optional monthly subscription. But what makes it great?

My interest in this started maybe three or four years ago, when someone did a post on MetaFilter rounding up the first dozen or so episodes of Roadkill. I like cars, and I like tinkering so I watched a few episodes on YouTube, and was instantly hooked. It’s two lovable dorks that remind me of every dude in auto shop at my high school and the show follows them as they go into junkyards, buy scrap heaps for cheap, then make them run just enough for a road trip adventure that follows. I’ve watched every episode ever since, and branched out to the magazine’s other shows as well.

As an outsider, if I had to guess I’d say either a bunch of magazine editors started dabbling with video to bolster their magazine stories on Facebook, or the magazine management asked them to do it, but regardless, today there are about two dozen top-notch shows being produced and shared on YouTube. One fun aspect is they’re purely destined for the internet, so an episode can be 12 minutes long or it can be 48 minutes. Most are around 20–30 minutes but being separate from the world of TV means they don’t have to follow TV conventions.

The shows are fun to watch—the hosts all seem like earnest car people followed around by a couple cameras along with a dozen GoPros and the shows seem done on the cheap, but it all looks good enough and the little adventures they go on feel real and not forced like a lot of car shows on network TV (*cough* every variant of Top Gear and every car show on Discovery *cough*). Considering I haven’t read a car magazine in probably 20 years, it’s surprising to me that Motor Trend’s shows are so watchable and terrific.

The show hosts drop engines in parking lots, use zip-ties to fix fenders, and show off impressive mechanic skills (that actually are nice applications of the scientific method) when their cars inevitably break down. They’re essentially teaching you how to troubleshoot your own car problems at every point without feeling like an online course. Their passion for the subject of each show is infectious to the point where my favorite series is about 4x4 trucks even though I don’t own a “real” truck. I also love another one by a guy that races cars and teaches you control techniques from the track, even though I don’t own a sports car and have never driven on a race track.

Each show releases episodes about once a month to YouTube, usually around the same day of the month. I used to set reminders for myself to reload the Motor Trend youtube channel incessantly around that time, and you’d see fans leaving comments on every other video asking when the new ones were coming out. Motor Trend also started Facebook groups for every show and they all seem to garner massive followings. Whenever the Roadkill guys announce they’ll be somewhere or need something, hundreds of fans show up in their clapped-out hot rods in random parking lots eager to help them out.

Looking back, I can’t tell if making internet TV shows for free on YouTube sold more magazines for the old publishing company, but I assume they realized how badly fans wanted to see new things and decided to monetize it in 2016.

Roadkill’s 2017 release schedule

THE AMAZING THING about this entire operation is “Motor Trend On Demand” is a $5/month paywall that simply gives you a handful of 3–5 minute daily episodes from a few shows plus a one-month early look at the full show episodes, which still get posted to YouTube eventually. About 75% of the content in the app once you’ve paid is simply repackaged videos you could already watch on YouTube for free. Their Apple TV app lacks a recent uploads/updates feature, their iOS apps can be a bit buggy, but still, I watch almost every show and feel like $5/month is a pretty good deal considering the hours and hours of enjoyment I get from it.

I really think the team at Motor Trend is onto something here with their compelling pivot to video. A common perk Patreon creators give their backing fans is early access to their work, but Motor Trend built an entire app around this simple idea. As a fan, I hope it’s so lucrative for the magazine that they get to make more shows that I can watch. But going forward, I think this early-access business model is something we’re going to see a lot more of online as creators look beyond traditional models like ad-supported work.