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T may install TV network to raise funds

By Mac Daniel, Globe Staff  |  March 30, 2005

Desperate to raise more money without increasing fares, the MBTA is preparing to install its own closed-circuit television network in subway cars and stations.

T officials said the plan, which calls for installing television screens inside subway cars on the Red, Orange, and Blue lines, could generate $3.5 million in advertising revenues a year. But the televisions would mark a dramatic change for America's oldest subway system.

The network, which would probably offer a newscast in addition to advertisements, would be installed within the next year, according to the plan, which requires final approval from the T board.

...

The T faces intense pressure to generate revenue and avoid steep fare hikes. The authority is strapped with the highest debt load of any transit agency in the nation and faces a $10 million deficit in the fiscal year that begins July 1. In addition, T officials are expecting a decline in revenues from the system's more traditional advertising placements -- on bus shelters, in stations, and on electronic message boards.

Details of how the television network would work have not been finalized, though Mulhern promises the system will be silent, with closed captioning and audio available on FM radio or FM-ready cellphones.

Under a similar network now being installed in Atlanta, the subway and commuter trains are being fitted with five 15-inch flat-screen televisions per car. The televisions on the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, or MARTA, will carry a 30-minute loop consisting of 20.5 minutes of local news from an ABC affiliate there and 9.5 minutes of advertising. The programming is updated throughout the day.

The Atlanta system is expected to generate $2.3 million in revenue annually.

The technology is spreading as transit agencies nationwide seek new ways to raise money during hard economic times. Atlanta will be the first to bring television to subway and commuter rail, though its buses already have the televisions. Buses in Milwaukee; Orlando, Fla.; Chicago; and Norfolk, Va., have similar systems.

For advertisers, the transit televisions offer a relatively captive audience, in an age when consumers can find ways to skip commercials through technology such as TiVo and satellite radio.

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Mulhern said the television system might help the T elsewhere. The complete network, installed at no cost to the MBTA, could make clearer stop and service-change announcements at stations. Riders have long complained about the frequently inaudible announcements made via the T's antiquated intercom.

Mulhern predicted that the system could expand beyond the Red, Blue, and Orange lines, but he said problems on the Green Line -- especially involving the trouble-prone Breda cars -- are a bigger priority than television service on that line. On commuter rail, a bigger priority is fixing electronic station signs, he said.

In another move to raise revenue, the authority plans to resurrect an effort to grant commercial naming-rights to the Route 128 commuter rail stop, in which advertisers have recently expressed interest. The T plans to ask for bids for the rights around May 1.

An effort in 2000 to sell naming-rights to downtown subway stations failed to attract advertiser interest. ''We think unlike the subway stations, there's more of an upside to it and less of a downside," Mulhern said. ''We think it's definitely worth exploring."

Continue Reading at: Boston.com

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