Don't touch that dial!

Posted on March 1, 2005 by Steve Hirano, Editor/Associate Publisher

The good folks at the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) recently announced that they will be installing flat-screen TVs in their subway and commuter railcars this spring. I can’t help but wonder if this is a good thing.

These 15-inch monitors will deliver news programming through a local ABC affiliate, WSB-TV, that will be leavened with what MARTA describes as “advertising in amounts consistent with network television’s morning or evening news broadcasts.”

Five televisions will be mounted in each railcar. The programming will be close-captioned, and the audio will be transmitted through headsets on FM radios or cell phones with an FM headset. This is intended to keep the TV from disturbing rail passengers who aren’t interested in the latest news or commercials.

The system will also offer three music channels and access to the MARTA Information Channel, which provides operational information as well as special event announcements. A little something for everyone, I guess.
How TV changes the dynamics I have mixed feelings here. Although I think it’s admirable MARTA is trying to provide its riders with, as it’s described in the press release, “an enhanced customer experience,” I wonder if, in reality, the new system won’t actually diminish the customer experience.

Here’s what I mean. On the various rail systems around the country, it’s not uncommon for riders to create their own social network on the train. They celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, agonize over personal and professional setbacks and share in the chitchat that is becoming less and less common every day.

If you install TVs in these railcars, will riders continue to build these social networks, or will they be content to sit and watch the flat-screen TVs, their headphones tuning out their fellow passengers?

And what of the networks of friends that already have formed? Will they continue to exchange stories about their sons and daughters, their bosses, their latest athletic achievement, their disdain for the music of today’s young people? Or will they be constantly glancing at the TV, trying hard to listen to each other under the constant bombardment of images that makes television so compelling. These days we’re all fighting for bandwidth.
Deliver us from Cialis And what about the commercials on MARTA’s TV system? Do we need more urging to conspicuously consume luxury cars, high-end electronics and pharmaceuticals to improve our, uh, performance?

I can hear the critics out there. “But, Steve, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to look.” But it’s human nature to look, isn’t it? It explains why traffic snarls at accident scenes — the more gruesome, the longer the delay. And it explains why heads always turn when someone, anyone, says, “Hey, check it out.” And it probably explains why we have four TV sets in my house, though I don’t watch much. Really.

Let’s face it, if you put TV screens in railcars, people are going to watch. You don’t even need to supply riders with 230,000 FM radios and headphones, as The Rail Network, the provider of the digital TVs, has promised as part of its agreement with MARTA. Even with no sound, people will watch the TVs.

Our society is already saturated with advertising messages, both at home and in the workplace (yes, I’ll be logging on to the Internet in a moment). One of the last refuges is our public transportation system and its thousands of buses and railcars. Now they’re being wired — or, in this case, wirelessed — for TV.

The constant stream of information and coercion can apparently reach us anywhere. Some would call this progress. I’m not among them.

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