With a billion views on YouTube, Motor Trend is now building a video paywall

Motor Trend has hit a billion views on YouTube by giving away its content for free. Now it’s changing gears to get some of its viewers to pay.

Last fall, Motor Trend soft-launched Motor Trend On Demand, a subscription streaming platform available for $5.99 per month. The platform has nearly 1,000 hours of original content including series such as “Roadkill Garage” and “Head2Head Drag Race.” This is in addition to a slew of third-party content, including live motorsport racing events that Motor Trend has digital broadcast rights to as well as classic car movies and TV shows.

It’s a new line of business for a 70-year-old magazine. But the company sees an opportunity in large part due to its success on YouTube, where it has nearly 3.8 million subscribers and has surpassed a billion total views — making it second only to BBC’s hit series “Top Gear” in terms of subscribers and total views. Today YouTube accounts for more than 80 percent of Motor Trend’s overall video audience, the publisher said.

Motor Trend treats YouTube like a TV channel, programming weekly and monthly shows around a variety of auto- and motorsports-related topics. For instance, “Roadkill” follows Hot Rod reporters David Freiburger and Mike Finnegan as they fix up old cars and see how far they can go before inevitably breaking down. The half-hour series airs once a month and is Motor Trend’s top show, averaging 2 million to 3 million views per episode on YouTube.

“People got used to the idea of a particular show airing on a particular day, and it’s a strategy we continue to use successfully,” said Angus MacKenzie, chief content officer of The Enthusiast Network, which owns Motor Trend and 50 other media publications covering adventure sports.

It also helps that YouTube viewers love automotive content: Autos is a top 10 category on YouTube, according to Zefr, accounting for roughly 18 percent of all videos uploaded to YouTube and 5 percent of total views.

But as Motor Trend puts more resources toward building Motor Trend On Demand, it’s willing to bend its YouTube strategy. The publisher is starting to window its shows by making them available for 30 days exclusively behind the paywall. Original series produced for Motor Trend On Demand, such as the aforementioned “Roadkill Garage,” won’t be available at all on the YouTube channel.

Changing viewer expectations in any shape or form is a risky move. And MacKenzie admits Motor Trend has already received some pushback from the audience. This prompted the publisher to upload a video last week with Freiburger explaining what the new subscription streaming platform is and assuaging concerns over the future of the YouTube channel.

“People will ultimately get it — we’re not taking any of their free programming away,” said MacKenzie. “They will still be able to watch it. But if someone subscribes to Motor Trend On Demand, they can become a super fan.”

In addition to a large content library, Motor Trend also plans to experiment with different pricing models and subscription plans to drive people to buy. For instance, one tier could wrap the streaming subscription with a magazine subscription or access to Motor Trend events. It’s a strategy that is being successfully employed by other niche streaming platforms like Crunchyroll and DramaFever.

And it’s a strategy that is necessary for publishers like Motor Trend, especially now that print accounts for less than half of total revenue, according to MacKenzie.

“The logic is inescapable. It’s the way the modern media landscape is going,” he said. “There are fewer and fewer instances where you are only in an ad-supported business model. A subscription platform gives us a consumer-supported business model — it’s roughly analogous to what the magazines used to be.”

Images via Rodrigo Garrido / Shutterstock.com