Captions of Industry
Multivision mines TV text to tell companies what's being said about them.
By Siri Schubert

(Business 2.0) – Babak Farahi showed early on that he had an eye for spotting business opportunities. In 1996, as a 24-year-old freelance cameraman for a San Francisco TV station, he noticed that viewers frequently called to request tapes of their kids, friends, or dogs that had appeared on the previous night's news. The station's answer was always no. So Farahi set up four video recorders in his parents' living room, taped the news every day, and asked the station's receptionists to give out his phone number. Soon he was selling videos to local restaurants, union activists, and proud parents.

Later that year Farahi was traveling to Los Angeles to shoot a segment about forest fires for the Sally Jessy Raphael Show when he saw something on a TV monitor in an airport that got him thinking bigger. What attracted Farahi's attention wasn't the picture on the screen but the text at the bottom of it: closed captions. "I began to wonder, 'What if I could make a database of that?'" he says. Instead of passively responding to clients' requests, Farahi figured he could use a computer to actively search programs for company names and products.

The next day, he went to a library to study up on closed captions. He learned that Congress had just passed a law that would eventually require broadcasters and cable operators to transmit text with every show. That meant he could tell a company what was being said about it, whether the mention was on a national network like CNN or a local station in Wichita. Excited about the possibilities, he unplugged his video recorders and closed his home-based clipping service. "I wanted to focus completely on the new idea," he says.

Unfortunately, the key to the new business model--a closed-caption database--didn't yet exist. So Farahi built it. He hired two programmers who spent the next year engineering the hardware and software to capture the text and search it. By 1997 he had founded Multivision, and soon he created an Internet-based delivery system that automatically sends clips to clients. Companies can specify whether they want to see every TV mention or just special ones--say, those related to charitable activities or those that appear on The Tonight Show. Often Farahi's clients are surprised by the clips, like the one in which the father in the CBS sitcom Standing Still proposed killing time at a mall by trimming his nose hair in a Sharper Image massage chair. "We had no idea our name was in the script until we got the clip from Multivision," says Sharper Image spokeswoman Suzie Stephens.

Based in Oakland, Calif., Multivision now has eight offices around the United States. The company monitors 150 of the country's 210 TV markets, and its customer roster includes California Pizza Kitchen, 7-Eleven, and Victoria's Secret. (Business 2.0 is also a Multivision client.) Farahi says Multivision's sales will hit $17 million in 2005, making it the second-largest player in a market worth about $100 million, according to the International Association of Broadcast Monitors. (The company has been gaining steadily on industry leader Video Monitoring Services, the entrenched video-clipping giant founded in 1981. VMS introduced closed-caption searches after Multivision, in 2000.)

Farahi says his next step is to expand internationally, where voice-and image-recognition software could help spot corporate names and logos in regions without closed captions. He also plans to monitor more of the growing list of niche broadcasters at home. "The 500-channel universe is music to our ears," he says. "The more content, the more valuable we are to our customers." -- SIRI SCHUBERT