Atlanta first in the U.S. to deliver broadcast content to subway
Railway commuters in Atlanta will soon have an alternative to their newspapers, paperbacks and laptops: the city's Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) begins hosting the first television and radio network for rail passengers in June.
Atlanta ABC affiliate WSB-TV is partnering with The Rail Network (TRN), a New York-based company that develops multimedia delivery technology for subway and commuter rail systems, to provide news content on five 15-inch screens in each of MARTA's rail cars. Newscast audio, along with three music channels, will be available in English and Spanish on unused FM channels in the market. Passengers will also be able to tune into the MARTA Information Channel, which will provide important operational and service announcements.
The choice of news programming was deliberate said David Lane, CEO of TRN. "The commuters step onto the train, they see the network affiliate newscast that's on, and no matter when they get on the train they can engage themselves."
Partnering with a local network affiliate gives the service instant recognition and credibility, and eliminates the need for TRN to build a news department. "That's why we contract with a single network affiliate in each market," said Lane, "because they are the experts in doing and providing content for that local market."
Although the financial terms between TRN and WSB were not disclosed, TRN says that when it expands to other cities, it plans to put the content supplier partnerships up for bids.
Supplying news material to TRN will be transparent to WSB itself. Other than supplying some tailored ins and outs to customize the presentation, the station will produce its daily newscasts as normal. The newscasts will be downlinked into TRN's North American digital facility in Atlanta. "As soon as that content is brought in, we'll provide the Spanish translation on the secondary audio channel," said Lane, "and all of that content will be immediately sent out to each of our trains."
Content will not be received continuously by the trains, but rather in "wireless zones" established along the rail transit's path. Content will move from TRN's digital facility to the wireless zones via a private network, then sent aboard the train itself via WiFi.
"To the train rider, the newscasts will be seamless," said Lane. "It's a completely automatic wireless distribution system. There are no manual tapes or operational assistance from any person onboard the trains whatsoever."
Each train has a server aboard to store content. TRN has an established schedule that puts news, weather, sports and other segments at a particular time each hour, along with commercial content. The news content gets a major refresh each time WSB airs its morning, noon, evening and late night newscasts.
"The MARTA trains run 20 hours a day," Lane said. "Every time a train hits one of the wireless zones, the infrastructure on-board performs a search for new content, pulls down what's new, substitutes it for the old content and starts playing it."
This system assures there will be continuous programming aboard each train car even if the transit system runs behind schedule or is stopped temporarily.
Breaking news that WSB broadcasts throughout the viewing day also can be downlinked at TRN's facility, processed and pushed out to the wireless zones to be picked up by the trains and inserted into the news material.
Audio and video are distributed from the server to screens and FM transmitters on the trains via TRN's patented wireless technology.
Sound for TRN's newscast and audio-only content is only available via an FM signal so that it won't bother passengers not wishing to hear it. Riders with personal FM radios or a cell phones with FM headsets will be able to listen.
To get riders enthusiastic about the new service, TRN will distribute up to 230,000 FM radios to MARTA rail riders during the initial launch period. Newscast material is also captioned for those without listening devices.
"There's an emergency messaging platform where we can provide AMBER alerts, homeland security messages, state and federal messaging, that will crawl across our video displays," said Lane.
TRN's service is offered at no charge to riders, and advertising revenue will allow the service to contribute revenue back to MARTA itself over the life of the 10-year contract. Advertising is not new to public transit.
"The rail audience has been bought since transit has been selling advertising, almost a hundred years," said Lane. He pointed to decades of research into transit advertising by third party firms like Scarborough, and Arbitron. "They have qualified this audience for decades and decades."
He said changing to a television ad from the static printed material historically used on transit is easy for advertisers. "Now they can use television, the most effective medium, and there's no creative costs because they can use the same units they've already produced for network TV."
The commercial loads for TRN's newscasts will be similar to those seen on broadcast TV during the particular dayparts.
Lane pointed to advantages for the network affiliate news department getting involved with TRN. "It's really the network affiliates' opportunity to help brand themselves, to help reach an audience that was unreachable," he said. "A large percentage of the DMA rides the rail system in each of these markets, and it's been an untapped market from the broadcast side."
Atlanta's mayor says she sees a big upside to the TRN service as well.
"By bringing this valuable service to MARTA and its rail passengers, The Rail Network is helping to strengthen Atlanta's reputation as an innovative technology center," stated Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. "The Rail Network's service will benefit both commuters and companies doing business in Atlanta."
Because rail transit systems are public entities, deals for service in other metropolitan areas require public bidding. At present, that process is underway in Washington, D.C. and Vancouver, B.C. TRN said it is in discussions with a number of other municipal transit authorities in North America and abroad, and expects bidding processes to commence in several soon.
TRN will manage news material in any new North American markets from its current facilities in Atlanta. "Our production facility can manage multiple markets at the same time and be able to pull down the content that is specific to each market, and essentially manage that content and get it out to the trains for each individual market," said Lane.
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