Now there are "fears" about ad screens in Toronto schools. Sheesh.

October 15, 2009 by Dave Haynes

In a past life I ran a large team of newspaper reporters and invested time to get the kids to actually advance a story, as in move it along with some new stuff. If I was the guy’s editor at the National Post, Canada’s other national daily, I would have spiked this story about the digital screen RFP for Toronto schools, since all he did was take the story from the rival Globe and Mail and do it over again, but adding FEARS!!! to the equation to amp it up.

Here’s the last thing I wrote about this, earlier in the week.

From the morning paper … 

The Toronto District School Board is attempting to dispel fears that a plan to install digital video screens in several downtown high schools this fall will expose captive students to commercial advertising.

“If there were to be any sort of revenue generation, it might come from the sale of advertising to people such as Health Canada, Toronto Public Health or universities and colleges,” TDSB chairman John Campbell said. “There’s a bit of concern on the part of some that this will be a slippery slope and will lead to commercial advertising, but there would be no appetite for that sort of endeavour in the board.”

In September, the board asked for proposals from digital signage companies, saying the screens would offer opportunities to generate revenue, without specifying how that would be achieved. While the installation of the screens is still a pilot project planned for three or four downtown high schools, the board says more schools in the GTA could see the screens if the test phase is successful.

The project is the brainchild of Ward 10 (Trinity-Spadina) trustee Chris Bolton, who says the screens — similar to those installed in TTC subway stations — would be a way to provide school-related information to students, such as dates and times of post-secondary institution visits, TTC schedules and weather updates. 

Mr. Bolton would not say which schools will have the screens. His ward — where the pilot project will take place — is home to some of the largest high schools in the city, including Harbord Collegiate Institute, Central Technical School and Central Commerce Collegiate.

“We were looking for a communication method and came up with the idea that maybe something like a video screen might do the trick, so there would be an ability to share information,” he said.

But Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, a parent-led, non-profit public education organization, questions how the screens will improve student education.

“We need to think about whether we want our school hallways to be places where there is that advertising,” she said. “There already is a lot of advertising out there. We’re surrounded by messaging constantly. Is there evidence that this will be helpful for students?”

While she acknowledges any proposed advertising on the screens will come from non-commercial entities, she says it is often difficult to draw the line between “benign” and “commercial, for-profit” ads.

Ms. Kidder points to the experience of Mississauga’s Meadowvale High School, the sole participant in a pilot project 10 years ago in which students were asked to watch a 12-minute newscast — including two minutes of commercials for such things as cereal, gum and video games. In exchange, the newscast’s producer, a private company called Youth News Network, donated $150,000 worth of new computers and televisions to the school. The project ultimately failed after hundreds of parents objected.

“There was a lot of opposition to YNN and it said the ads would be public service announcements and wouldn’t contain overtly commercial ones,” she said.

“But there’s still this sense that you have a captive audience in students and we have to ask the question, ‘Do we want that captive audience?’”

As teeny little bits of detail come out, it is starting to make a bit more sense why OneStop Media would be pursuing this. The real money for this target audience is from the mobile and entertainment sectors, but there is also a pretty healthy ad spend out there from government and from universities, community colleges and technical schools that are said to be OK from the board’s point of view.

But there are piles of open questions about how much impact a screen network could have on a school campus and how the screens would survive more than an hour when exposed to a steady tidal wave of teenaged boys. More to the point, the process of getting this past all the interest groups who would oppose it – and dealing with board bureaucrats – would be soooo painful.

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