TTN: Bus TV for You and Me

buspic.jpg by Carrie Trousil

Milwaukee is the second city after only Orlando, that corporate slattern of America, to have televisions installed on its public buses. Quite honestly, it doesn’t seem that many Milwaukeeans really appreciate this parallel with the land of Mickey Mouse. In fact, people seem to find it intrusive. Charles Worman, a route 10 rider, voices a typical complaint: “The TV is annoying because it seems like a big advertisement,” he gripes. “I get irritated because I try to read and then get distracted by an announcement for a hair salon.” With these sour grapes in mind, a friend and I decide one afternoon to scrape together the $1.50 fare to witness the Transit Television Network (TTN) first hand. We wait in front of the Uptowner for the 10. When it shows, we watch two passengers exit, make our move to board, but the driver shuts the door in our faces and drives away. Strike one for the transit system! We wait for the next bus, and this driver actually lets us on. The televisions, however, aren’t working, so it isn’t until we hop on the 15 that we finally get a glimpse of this spectacle, the TTN. My friend and I stare at the television. We’re trivia geeks, so the TTN initially doesn’t seem so abhorrent. Every few minutes they run a series of clues from which you can deduce the identity of a famous person, such as Sir Francis Drake or Hillary Clinton. The screens hang from the ceiling, and are divided into four parts, the peripheral divisions showing stops, time, date, and the main body showing ads, word games, or news. Ultimately, it’s a benign intrusion, and most of the passengers I eye up are staring into space rather than at the screen. That is, until the sound comes on. It is disruptively loud, and since it accompanies only certain ads and stops, can quite easily jolt you out of a bus stupor. Rider Dug Belan states, “I think the volume should stay off. If it did, I think that watching the TV would be a good way to pass the time while you’re riding to your job, or whatever.” The 15 whizzes down KK, and my friend and I decide to get off the bus and fart around for a bit before realizing we’ve got to get moving or lose our valuable transfer time. Back on the 15, we joke about the TTN’s asinine Christmas tips, such as “buy aluminum pans before preparing Christmas dinner.” I tell my friend that I had heard that ads change on different routes, to be area (income?) appropriate. Later, I ask Joe Caruso, Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) marketing director, about this supposition, and he explains that because of the GPS installed with the TTN, programming is dictated by the location of the bus, meaning different ads run in different areas of the city. An interesting point, because it drives home what this TTN venture is all about. Milwaukee County didn’t pay for the installation of the TTN, because our buses are a medium through which the network can garner ad revenue, of which the MCTS gets about 10%. Consider the companies behind the system, and this all comes together. According to the Business Journal, the TTN was started by ITEC, a company that designs rides and attraction for Disney and Universal Studios. In 2000, they implemented a prototype system on 10 Orlando buses, but never expanded. Then, in 2002 the Toronto based Torstar Corp. bought a majority share in the network, and under their direction, the TTN now has designs on transit markets across North America. Incidentally, one of Torstar’s other holdings is Harlequin Enterprises, purveyor of our favorite bodice-ripping romance novellas. Later, my friend and I transfer back to the 10 and ponder these facts. Is trivia really worth the cost of the increased intrusion of advertising into our daily lives? Since Milwaukeeans don’t have a choice anyway, we decide it could be, if they would just keep the volume off. In that case, the TTN would just be so easy to ignore. Unless, of course, it starts running television versions of those romance novellas.