I don’t ride the commuter rails too much these days, but instead of crawling my way into downtown Toronto for a meeting today, I took the commuter train – known around here as Go Transit.
A company called UMBC has, for some months now, had a screen network going in a portion of the passenger cars, and being a digital signage nerd, I actually sought one out on the way home. Sad, but true.
This is where I put on my free consulting hat for these guys, because this thing needs work. Lotsa work.
Good: The screens are smallish, but well-positioned, and seem to have some ruggedization happening. The video output was rock-solid, which could easily be a problem on a rail car. The advertising partner, Exclusive Advertising, seems to be getting traction, with what appeared to be at least eight sold slots to good brands like Toyota and Rogers. For early days and a limited install, that doesn’t seem too bad. There was an ad on there for a TV show on tonight. Great! And they resisted temptation and made everything full screen, instead of zoned and impossible to digest or read.
Not so good: Glare from outside, and from the lighting fixtures that line the rail car interiors, made the screens hard to view from where I sat. It was fine if I turned around and looked over my shoulder, but that’s not how people will look.
And now for the stuff that will ensure no UMBC Christmas card for me: The content is just plain dumb. Sorry. No way to candy-coat it.
This thing is theoretically set up for people who will bring radio receivers and tune in one of two channels that has the broadcast. My gut tells me the take-up on that will be limited, at very best. So you are left with some ads that are not all that useful without audio, and some content pieces that are just ridiculous without it.
One very lengthy piece, which played twice during my 45 minute chug-chug home, had two guys in a studio yakking about prostates, with some cutaways to shots in clinics. Another long piece had a guy talking about the early days of Canuck hoops.
There was another piece that just jumped without an explainer and was a string of sports highlights — like big hits, bad falls and so on — that looked dated.
There was another clip with no context of some guy skiing, for a minute or more.
And then there was all that text news, for which you don’t need audio and may or may not have had an audio track behind it (though I am approaching geezerhood, I have an MP3 player, not a transistor radio with me, so no tuning in to 88.1 FM). These text headlines went on and on and on … and on. I counted 15 news headlines in a row, with one break in there to remind me I was was looking at news.
All of this content is provided by CanWest Mediaworks, which owns Global News (TV) and the Financial Post newspaper. They get great branding out of the deal, but I would be surprised if passengers see much value. Most of the news was from Tuesday, or advances on news to happen today, though I was looking at all this at 3 pm and a wire service would be able to at least spit out some breaking news from around the country and planet.
Content cannot be shoveled from one medium to another effectively. It has to at least be timely. And it really needs to be relevant.
Producing content is by no means cheap or easy, but a network aimed at commuters has to provide some content that speaks to them, and a service that is relevant. At minimum, you’d hope the screens would at least pop a message saying the train was pulling into a particular station.
A bunch of day-old shovelware from TV, and long strings of news headlines people can get in countless ways these days, do not make for a compelling content mix. The only people watching this for long would be catatonic.
Now for something positive.
Technically, the product is not too bad. The screens could be bigger and brighter, but that’s getting picky. What these network operators do have is a massive, well-defined and reliable audience that has few options – sleep, read, annoy people by yakking on their cell phones, or watch the screens.
If they get out of start-up phase, and really think through and deliver on relevant content, they’ve got something.
If not, it’s gonna be another network that was big on opportunity but weak on execution — and that’s not good for any of us. I would like to love this thing, as good high profile networks will help build the industry and ad dollars.
Dave Haynes is the founder and editor of Sixteen:Nine, an online publication that has followed the digital signage industry for more than 13 years. Dave does strategic advisory consulting work for many end-users and vendors, and also writes for many of them. He’s based near Halifax, Nova Scotia.