February 21st, 2001

Advertisers Seek Out City Buses to Broadcast Their Latest Pitches

By Robert Johnson
Wall Street Journal

Advertisers dream of captive audiences. So much so that in recent years, they’ve
even tried placing ads on turnstiles at sporting events, despite the fact that
the audience is restrained for only a second or so.

Now Orbital Sciences Corp., a maker of mass-transit tracking systems, is teaming
up with Itec Entertainment Corp., a small theme-park design company, to target
the ultimate captive audience: riders of city buses, who are typically confined
in the vehicle for 10 to 20 minutes. The joint-venture partners want to plant
television screens inside municipal buses to broadcast a package of news and
weather - and lots of ads.

Orbital is already running a pilot programme in Orlando, Fla., where about
a dozen buses have been showing programmes and information on upcoming bus stops
on the closed-circuit TV system since October. Advertisers with air time include
the Value Pawn store chain and First Choice Auto Finance, a used-car credit
provider.

Some passengers say they welcome the TVs. "Watching the monitors gives
you something to do," says Mr Steve Choiniere, manager of an Orlando clothing
store and a regular bus rider. "I saw one story about the outdoors that
had mountains and woods. It was a lot better than watching the same old buildings
pass by outside the bus."

Others aren’t so happy about being trapped on a bus with TVs showing ads at
a preset volume. "The whole idea of television ads blaring at you on a
bus is offensive," says Mr James Clark, editor of monthly Orlando magazine
and an occasional city-bus rider. "It’s bad enough that you have to be
riding a crowded bus in the first place, but this is adding insult to injury."

The designers, in fact, have taken pains to prevent passengers from injuring
the TV systems, and vice-versa. The screens and monitor boxes, which hang down
from the bus ceilings in boxes, have contoured corners to help prevent riders
from hitting their heads. They are also what Itec describes as "hammerproof."

"Someone may take a swing at these screens and try to yank them down,"
says Mr Doug Tison, legal affairs director for Orlando’s bus system, known as
Lynx. The TV systems, which include three monitors for each vehicle, cost about
$11,000 to install per bus. The programming, which Itec puts together, draws
stories from a variety of news wires. Some stories appear as printed text, but
others, such as lifestyle and nature features, are colour video.

Itec also generates content at its small Orlando studios, such as trivia questions
that appear occasionally on the bus TVs. "It really doesn’t take much to
entertain most people on a bus ride," says Mr Daniel West, vice- president
of Itec Network, the closely held company’s telecasting unit.

So far, advertisers have been pleased with the results of the Orlando pilot
programme - and the cost to participate, says Ms Annette Percival, president
of Advantage Marketing Concepts, a media-buying company in Orlando. The Orbital-Itec
partnership has guaranteed a total of one million viewers during six months
of telecasting the 30-second spots, for $1,500 a month, Ms Percival says. By
comparison, she says, reaching such an audience via television in Orlando homes
would cost about $3,500 a month.

One satisfied customer is the US Marine Corps, whose advertising agency, J
Walter Thompson, a unit of New York’s WPP Group PLC, bought recruiting ads on
the Orlando buses in November. The bus ads are the same 30-second spots running
on network TV, depicting a Marine with a sword slaying a dragon.

This week, Orbital is launching an effort to market the systems to municipal
bus services nationwide. The news and weather can be tailored to each city,
notes Mr Marc Plogstedt, a partner at Itec. The technology could also work in
commuter trains, he says. Similar systems are being developed and tested by
other companies on bus systems in Singapore and London.

Orlando-based Itec is best known for designing such popular rides as Universal
Studios’ Jurassic Park and Spiderman in Orlando. In the Jurassic Park ride,
for example, the company plans which way the boats will turn and what the dinosaurs
will do. Itec’s client list includes Walt Disney World and the Mirage Resort
in Las Vegas.

So with such a glamorous resume, why bother with buses, perhaps the world’s
dullest rides? "That’s just the point; it’s a challenge," says Mr
Bill Coan, a partner at Itec. It’s also a wide-open market, he adds. But what’s
the best part for an advertiser? Mr Plogstedt, the Itec partner, says it’s probably
that passengers have to pay attention to the screen to be alerted that their
stop is coming "so they can get off." And get away.

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