Photo by Jonathan Goldsbie.
According to a December 2004 article in the Globe, Mike Harris is (or at least was at the time) the chairman of video advertising company Onestop; he got on board “in return for an equity stake” in the business. Presuming that he still has that stake (and why wouldn’t he? he may be evil, but he’s not stupid), Harris became a richer man two weeks ago, when the Toronto Transit Commission unanimously voted to extend Onestop’s sole-source contract for platform video screens (PVSs) by another seven years, and expand its scope to possibly include new advertising opportunities from which the TTC would see no new revenue [PDF]. So, yes, the man who bankrupted the TTC continues to profit off of its bankruptcy.
New screens will be installed in the bus terminals of subway stations to indicate when the next vehicles are arriving. In and of itself, this is undeniably pretty cool. (The above is a photo of a demonstration running on a flat-screen TV at the commission meeting.) There are, however, several problems associated with entrusting such a soon-to-be-vital service to a private company. Joe Clark‘s chief concern is that Onestop, a relatively small and inexperienced company, could go belly up some time in the next eleven years (the contract now expires at the end of 2018), leaving the TTC stranded. Steve Munro, on the other hand, thinks the company is more likely to get bought out, and is instead worried that which stations get this service will be determined by which ones offer the most attractive advertising opportunities. It’s no secret that the lethargic roll-out schedule of the PVSs is entirely determined by which stations are the most profitable for advertising purposes. Hence, Bloor-Yonge has had screens for years, whereas less-used stations like Summerhill or more far-flung ones like York Mills have to make do with old Metron clocks that don’t work and have been running the same damn kennel ad since time immemorial. So if you wait for buses at a second- or third-tier station, it’s unlikely you’ll be appraised of vehicle arrival times in the near future. As is frequently the case, many of the same politicians who are quick to dismiss any suggestion that the TTC should be privatized are okay with letting the free market decide which citizens will get what services and when.
The next-bus screens will not have traditional videos advertisements but rather may display a corporate logo that would take the place of the “ONESTOP media group” in the above demo. What makes this frustrating is that the TTC wouldn’t get a slice of the money from this, as they do from the PVSs. It’s almost never a good thing when a government opts for privatization, but it’s even more annoying when they do and (as is usually the case) get a crummy deal. Going by Onestop’s current rate card [PDF], $5539 gets you an ad of equivalent size (the “Time Banner Logo”) for two hours on all of the system’s 212 screens (each box has two screens); that works out to about $26 a screen. There will be 41 next-bus screens, so 26 x 41 = 1066. Presuming that each station is open for 137 hours a week (roughly 6:00 a.m.-2:00 a.m. Monday-Saturday and 9:00 a.m.-2:00 a.m. Sunday), that would work out to just over $73 000 a week or almost $4 million a year. Obviously, there are many other factors that would determine the actual revenue—e.g. the ads would probably be worth more than their PVS counterparts because of no competing ads on the same screen, but it’s also extremely unlikely that 100% of the time would be sold at the full rate, etc.—so this is at best a very general estimate. But it’s enough to suggest that the authors of the staff report were somewhat off when they stated that “the use of sponsorship will not likely generate significant revenue,” thereby excusing the TTC from asking for a cut of it. (The rate paid to the TTC from PVS ads, however, will increase significantly, due to the greater penetration when all of the screens are installed.)
But thankfully no deal has yet been signed. Upon a motion by Vice-Chair Joe Mihevc, with some help from the Toronto Public Space Committee (which had been instrumental in defeating Onestop’s proposal to put video ads within subway cars) the staff recommendations were only approved “in principle,” and the final authority to draft and finalize the contract has been delegated to Chief General Manager Gary Webster, subject to certain conditions: that
1. THE IMPLEMENTATION OF THIS WORK IS COMPLETED IN A TIMELY ENOUGH MANNER TO FULLY ACCOMPLISH THE BENEFITS CONTAINED IN THE REPORT;
2. CONCERNS ARE ADDRESSED AROUND THE DISPLAY LAYOUT (E.G. SIZE OF FONT FOR REGULAR TIME AND ARRIVING TIME, NOT INCREASING THE SIZE FOR ADVERTISING PORTIONS OF THE SCREENS, FOR THE SUBWAY STATION INSTALLATIONS ENSURING THAT THE TOP BAND ON THE NEXT BUS ARRIVAL SCREEN IS CLEARLY LIMITED AND DEFINED IN THE CONTRACT, AND ENSURING THAT NO ADVERTISING IS INCLUDED ON THE NEXT BUS ARRIVAL SCREEN);
3. THAT THE ON STREET NEXT BUS INFORMATION SIGN PROJECT BE TENDERED OUT AND NOT SUBJECT TO FURTHER NEGOTIATIONS WITH CBS AND/OR
4. THE PUBLIC IS CONSULTED ON THE SCREEN LAYOUT.
Because the text in the parentheses in the second clause begins with “e.g.” and not “i.e.,” it’s more likely to be interpreted by staff as a suggestion than an instruction. But not necessarily—it will be up to activists to apply pressure to staff to adhere to the intent of the motion. That there will now be public consultation on the layout is also a very hopeful sign, as the pilot project in Finch station this November would probably otherwise have been accompanied by only the broadest of opinion surveys. But what’s needed more than anything else is, as Joe Clark will tell you, real user testing; that is, not reflections of how people feel about the screens but rather quantitative data regarding the extent to which the screens are accessible to different types of people. Those with minor visual impairments, for example, might have difficulty reading the black-on-white display; those with major visual impairments, however, won’t find it useable at all, and a Human Rights complaint is likely, and perhaps inevitable, unless an audio component is added.
Also distressingly, there is as yet no commitment to use either type of screen to meaningfully notify passengers about service delays and disruptions. A communication submitted to the commission by Clark outlined Onestop’s woeful negligence in informing riders about the effects of the Kennedy train derailment and Queen West fire. As Joe illustrated with a series of photos, Onestop’s approach to disseminating important information boils down to
A section of the Bloor-Danforth... ...Subway service is currently shut... ...down between Kennedy and... ...Warden Station. Shuttle buses are...
You get the idea. Joe’s communication was “received” by the commission early on in the meeting, which essentially means it was duly noted and no action taken. When the issue of the Onestop contract came up later, though, Commissioner Glenn De Baeremaeker literally held up the letter as containing an example of a significant deficiency in the way Onestop is currently doing things, remarking that if a station is on fire the whole screen should be filled with giant letters screaming at you that the station is on fire. Nevertheless, De Baeremaeker declined to make any motions that might see this problem corrected.
According to IllegalSigns.ca, “when the TPSC killed video screens [inside subway cars] in 2005, they killed them off for good, at least until 2011” because “the capital expenditures associated with installing video screens inside subway cars just don’t make sense if you may lose the contract in four years and have to pull your screens.” But that presumed that the Onestop contract would in fact expire at the end of 2011 along with the CBS Outdoor contract (which includes all TTC advertising except the transit shelters). Now that Onestop will be settled in for over a decade, transit riders will probably once again have to assert that we deserve to be treated by the government as people, not “media consumers.”
Jonathan Goldsbie is a campaigner with the Toronto Public Space Committee. Torontoist editor-in-chief David Topping provides free content (his 69 Stations photos) to Onestop’s platform screens.