Sure, the U.S. auto industry may not have been suffering from a glut of good ideas lately, but one of the better new ones may be bouncing down from the blue skies over Texas. Last July, Dallas car dealer Carl Westcott went on line with his Automotive Satellite Television Network (ASTN), a subscription broadcast service aimed at the country's 22,000 independent car dealerships. Coupling existing technology with a commitment to daily programming, ASTN is said to be the first business-to-business specialty TV network in America -- and already one of the nation's largest satellite networks of any kind.

Westcott funded the start-up to the tune of $6 million and admits he "could've lost $3 million, easy, in the early stages." Such losses seem unlikely now. Featuring one hour's worth of training programs, management seminars, industry news, and other self-help programming on weekdays, ASTN is roaring out of the showroom faster than a turbocharged Corvette. By mid-November, the network had 680 subscribers on board (at $385 per month) and was adding some 50 a week -- well on its way to a break-even figure of 1,000 to 1,200. Dealers used to shelling out $300 to $400 per salesperson for training seminars seem more than willing to leave the driving to somebody else.

"We're not teaching tricks or gimmicks; we're raising the level of salespeople's professionalism so they can make a career of this," avers Westcott. "Understand that at your typical dealership, 50% of the sales force wasn't there the year before. And our fee is lunch money when you're talking monthly operating budgets of $150,000 and up. If we help you sell one more car a month, we're worth it."

Westcott has already established a relationship with General Motors Corp. that will allow it to provide specialized programming for its dealers.

There is the possibility of extending such microdish service to, say, the hotel business. "I've heard from 8 or 10 other industries," he concedes, "and I'm sure we'll do another deal, but we'll pick our spots real carefully." And no doubt kick the tires.