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MTA Offers a New Way to Avoid Eye Contact

Video screens with news, stock quotes, games and other programming are being installed on buses at no cost to taxpayers.

June 22, 2005|Andrew Wang | Times Staff Writer

On most days Cindy Hernandez used to stare out the window of the MTA bus she rides to and from work.

This week, though, something new on board caught the eye of the 17-year-old high school senior and Target store cashier on her daily commute: flat-screen video monitors flashing news and sports headlines, stock quotes, trivia questions and word puzzles.

The two screens are among the first installed as part of a plan to have two monitors on each of the approximately 2,500 buses run by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority within a year.

As the first handful of video-equipped buses fanned out this week, reactions to the new additions were mixed.

"I think it's pretty cool.... It keeps your mind off things," Cindy said as the bus rumbled west on 3rd Street through Koreatown and Mid-Wilshire and an MTA advertisement played on the 17-inch monitors. Still, she added, "It could be a little more entertaining."

The MTA recently announced a 10-year contract with Transit Television Network, a Florida-based company, to install the screens and produce most of the programming. The firm has a track record of providing similar bus- and train-based programming to transit agencies in Orlando, Milwaukee, Atlanta and Chicago.

According to the deal, Transit TV will pay the MTA $100,000 a year, plus a percentage of the company's advertising revenue that will increase over the term of the contract. Based on Transit TV's best-case scenario, MTA would earn a total of $170,000 the first year, $1.3 million the next year and $2.4 million the third year, said Warren Morse, the authority's deputy executive officer of marketing and customer relations.

Transit TV, Morse said, will cover the entire cost of installation, maintenance and repair. One screen will be mounted on bus poles near the driver, the other by the rear door of each bus.

"It's an informational system, and hopefully it will enhance the experience of being on the bus," Morse said. "And it doesn't cost us anything."

The programming will include 30-second segments culled from existing MTA programs, with voice-overs and background music, about various cities and other travel destinations in the county, Morse said. Sections of the screen will also display information on upcoming stops and the location of the bus, beamed via satellite to a Global Positioning System receiver. Video commercials will fill about 15 minutes of every hour, and there will also be banner ads.

Monitors on bus No. 7407 this week showed Reuters news briefs, text-based synopses of current films and a word puzzle called "Race the Clock," in which riders had to guess a name or phrase as letters appeared and a timer ticked away.

Multiple-choice trivia questions, with correct answers later supplied, included "What empire was Hannibal the great leader of?" (Carthage), "Who built the English town of Bath?" (the Romans) and "Where was the first official NASCAR race held?" (Charlotte, N.C.).

As passengers boarded the bus, some gazed quizzically at the monitors. For most, it was the first time they had seen them.

"I think it's great," said 84-year-old Vern Siegner, standing at the front of the bus as it bounded eastward on 3rd Street in the Park La Brea neighborhood. "I like to catch up on the news to see what's going on."

Some passengers, particularly those who got on in the heavily Spanish-speaking Westlake section of the city, took note of the screens for a few moments, but then looked away to talk with others, look out the window or take a nap. All the text on the monitors Monday was in English, though MTA officials said the programming also will eventually be in Spanish and other languages, depending on the areas the buses pass through.

Other passengers simply found the games and news blurbs boring.

"Is that all they're going to put on it?" asked Lilian Bade, 18, as she and her friend Diana Munoz, 18, looked up at the screen from their seats and giggled at some of the trivia questions.

Antoine Ellis, 20, who said he takes the bus two or three times a week to help his uncle at his job as a plant manager at an elementary school near downtown, worried about vandalism.

"People are going to start destroying them," he said, pointing to letters scrawled on the interior of the bus. "It might be a little marker or a sticker or something."

James Doza, 33, said he would probably watch the monitors whenever he rode the bus. Still, he said he'd be careful not to get too engrossed.

"It's an attention-breaker, if anything," he said. "I just hope I don't get too into it and miss my stop."

John Drayton, a manager in MTA's vehicle technology section, said each bus will be outfitted with an antenna to catch video content at depots and layover spots with the same networking technology used in wireless computers. The shows will be downloaded and played from a hard drive.

"It'll be what we think of as 'extremely timely news,' " Drayton said, "less than 90 minutes old."

And though some programs have audio, the sound can be overridden by the bus' automated announcement system and the driver, he said.

"When you're packed on a bus in sardine-like conditions, to have information on where you are and where you're going is a good thing," said Bart Reed, executive director of the Transit Coalition, a nonprofit riders advocacy group. "This is finally giving riders something the authority, to this point, has not been able to provide."

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