John Davis used to wear a red sport coat to press gatherings. A carryover, he says, from the days when television was highlighting its color capability. Or, it could have been a shrewd way of being remembered by PR guys when he called about a car to review for his little known public TV show, MotorWeek. That was 29 years ago and it was the first weekly TV car review in the United States.
As he saw it, “Pubic television was at the bottom of the food chain when it came to distributing ad dollars and, in those days, press cars.” Now they review about 175 cars a year but still have to hustle for dollars, “Each year we raise enough money for a season, but there is no guarantee that we will be back the next year.” To make that happen Davis now goes to fewer press events and spends more of his time on the road raising money. “We bring in enough money to pay for ourselves and once-in awhile add something to the station’s budget.” Of late, the show has benefited greatly from being carried on Speed TV and online by www.Cars.com, as well as its own www.Motorweek.com
Davis created the show as a companion to the buff magazines that were the prime consumers sources of automotive information at the time. “We weren’t competing with them. We were providing an educated impression of the cars viewers saw on the covers of those magazines. That’s what we still do.” Only they have to target a broader audience. To do so it is designed in components that can be dropped in and most important, they keep it easily understood. “If a viewer says, ‘what was that,’ he can’t go back and read it again. Its on its gone.”
Davis could well lay away his audience with technical jargon – a gear-head as a kid, he graduated North Carolina State as an aerospace engineer – or pontificate on the auto industry and its problems. He also has a business degree from North Carolina University and worked as a research analyst on Wall Street before becoming executive producer of the venerable Wall Street Week TV show. But, he prefers a self-effacing style that tells viewers more of what they want to know than how much he knows. He was able to create the work he really likes because he volunteered at NC State’s campus radio station, rose to director there and then continued to work in commercial radio and TV to pay his way through NCU.
A number of persons who got the their start with Davis at MotorWeek have moved on in the communications business, among them, Craig Singhaus, now in network broadcasting and Lisa Barrow with Chrysler. While year 30 is his first concern, Davis looks beyond and to the new media. He worries that the rush to be first on the Internet may make superficiality the norm and the trust engendered by good magazines and in-depth product reviews may be sacrificed. On the other hand, he acknowledges that once his show was “the new media” and it took a while for it to establish its place in the automotive communications spectrum.
The Emmy® Award-winning show has brought Davis numerous honors and he, in turn, has lent his talent and energies to auto journalism, driving safety and clean air initiatives. But it is not all work. Over those years he has owned and enjoyed a variety of high performance cars, including a vintage Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Corvette and a deTomaso Pantera.