Television finds spot on dials of car radios
Mon Dec 29 14:22:59 EST 2003

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Television finds spot on dials of car radios 

Nugent Vitallo has spent $825,000 and many years to create a device to listen to TV shows while driving, but will it gain an audience?

By Matt Baron
Special to the Tribune

December 29, 2003

We have put man on the moon, inserted cameras inside the human body and developed soft drinks unencumbered by calories.

So why on earth, wonders Nugent Vitallo, has nobody put television audio in the car radio?

Vitallo is stumped by that question, but for the past eight years the Oak Brook entrepreneur has been pouring more of his energy into bringing such a product to the masses. He calls it Television Audio, or TVA, and he thought he had the breakthrough three years ago. But an engineering glitch resulted in too much static over the airwaves during a trial run and sent him back to the designing board.

Now, after investing five years of full-time effort and about $825,000, Vitallo this month is producing a limited run of 200 units out of a Glendale Heights plant.

He is trying to get many of those units into cars by offering small rebates to charter consumers through his Web site. And he's on the lookout for an investor to help launch the product on a broader scale.

TVA allows motorists to use their vehicle's radio to listen to the audio of VHF and UHF television programs, meaning that it hooks up with major networks like ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox, as well as such other networks as PBS, Pax and WB that broadcast over independent stations.

The device, priced from $130 to $150, with no subscription fee, uses the vehicle's existing antenna and places TV audio on 90.5 or 90.9 FM. A small control is mounted on the dashboard, connected to a tiny transceiver that can be hidden behind the dashboard or placed elsewhere in a vehicle.

As the driver travels, a favorites list is automatically created to scan all of the channels strong enough to provide clear audio.

Vitallo does not view it as competing with high-tech developments such as XM digital radio, which he acknowledges provides a better sound quality but does not enable someone to follow TV programs from their home to their car.

About 25 years ago, Vitallo created the forerunner to TVA when he lugged his 18-inch TV set into the back seat of his Oldsmobile convertible, fiddled with the electronic connections and managed to tune in to the television as he drove.

"I didn't care about the picture," he recalled. "I just ran wires in the battery."

He preferred listening to the television over the radio but got worn out by the repeated shuttling of the TV in and out of the car when he had passengers in the back.

History of success

Vitallo went on to own National Computer Services Inc., a company that sold time-sharing for mainframe computers.

When he sold the enterprise in 1992, he was left with ample cash and time to ponder his next move.

For the 65-year-old, those forays included the development of Inside Pocket Shirts, which hide valuables in, well, an inside pocket and keeps them from falling out; the creation of Card Wrap, a credit card holder; and the birth of a Web site that aims to put Major League Baseball teams' performances in context by comparing their records with their payrolls.

"He's kind of a renaissance man," said Rick Del Giudice, a longtime friend and business attorney. "He's been successful in different businesses; he's written manuscripts. He's very well rounded."

Vitallo's big idea crystallized over a conversation with someone who remembered his TV-in-the-car days, business attorney John Stiefel.

"Here I am floundering after I sold my company, and that's all I needed to hear," said Vitallo. "It's the fun of the chase."

With nearly 200 million cars on American roads--more than the number of licensed drivers--Vitallo said there is a vast market for TV companies to tap into to expand their ad revenue.

Ch. 5 chief sees hurdles

But Larry Wert, president and general manager of WMAQ-Ch. 5 in Chicago, said one of TVA's major hurdles is competing with the growing number of access points to an audience.

"I would need to see and understand it more," said Wert. "As a consumer, there are more options now, and there will be more in the future. The challenge is it's coming at a time when distribution systems are growing, and media platforms are growing at a faster rate than content."

Wert is doubtful the advertising revenue would be substantial with TVA, but he was sufficiently intrigued with the concept to meet with Vitallo two years ago to discuss it. The idea of putting audio content from TV stations or cable outlets onto radio distribution systems has "always been very interesting to me," said Wert.

Radio outlets are looking for quality content, and something like TVA could be appealing for those tuned in to a program and interested, for instance, in hearing a guest on the "Today" show, Wert said.

"You're still able to stay engaged in the content," said Wert. "It gives them an alternative to stay with it."

Del Giudice sampled TVA for a weekend about a year ago. He listened to a college basketball game that he had been watching at home.

"As somebody who enjoys sports, that's a particularly good thing to have," said Del Giudice. "A lot of times, games on TV are not on radio."

Vitallo has a vision of empowering people to have the option of tuning in to their television program, but in a safer, less expensive fashion than the installation of TV sets that has begun in some vehicles. The way he sees it, why should you have to give up following a newscast, a sitcom or a ballgame just because you have to go somewhere?

Vitallo, for example, frequently listens to "Jeopardy" on the way to picking up his 9-year-old daughter, Gianna, from school.

"There's no reason why a housewife shouldn't be able to listen to her soap opera just because she's picking up her kids or running errands," he said.

Vitallo added that getting the news is an entirely different experience with TVA over typical radio stations.

"Why would I want to hear it second-hand on the radio?" Vitallo said.

Copyright (c) 2003, Chicago Tribune

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