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Commercials Arrive by Bus in Milwaukee - 2003-06-07

If you get on a bus in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and don't want to read or chat with a friend or listen to music on headphones or sleep, chances are, you can watch television. One-hundred-fifty local buses now have TV monitors installed in them. While some riders like the new entertainment, many others find the frequent commercials distracting and annoying.

On this chilly, rainy morning, about 50 commuters are packing into a bus for the 20 minute ride that will take them from Milwaukee's East Side to downtown.

Some passengers read to pass the time, while others look out the windows or at the ceiling, where three TV monitors silently display the latest headlines, entertainment news and baseball scores, against a background of animals and other scenic images. But when the commercials come on, so does the volume. Some riders say they don't mind the monitors. One middle-aged woman, who wouldn't give her name, says she actually enjoys watching the programming. "The Serengeti with the animals, and the trivia and the news updates and all of that, I like. I like to look up there and see it and read it," she says.

But other riders, like Justin Edwards, can't stand the commercials. He says, when they're blaring, he can't concentrate on his reading. "It's ridiculous that we're forced to listen to advertisements when we could be having conversations with friends or something else," he says.

A number of passengers on this bus complain about how loud the commercials are. The volume is also a problem for the bus driver. "It takes your eyes off the road and it's funny because our management has been talking for the last 40 years that we can't play electronic devices on the bus because they distract us," he says.

But transit system management hopes those commercials will help pay his salary. Milwaukee County has experienced a five-percent drop in bus ridership, and revenue, in the past couple of years. In response, it raised fares and eliminated some bus routes. Transit system marketing director Joe Caruso says the county was approached by Itec Entertainment, based in Orlando, Florida. The company had provided the TV monitors that were appearing on buses in that city.

Mr. Caruso says when officials were told they could earn a ten-percent share of net advertising sales, the county decided to give the on-board monitors a try. "Budgets are really tight. You have to look at creative ways to increase your revenues. And sometimes in transit, choices are very minimal," he says.

While it's too early to tell how much money Milwaukee County will make from this arrangement, the Orlando experience isn't all that promising. After two and a half years, the central Florida city still not seen any money from the deal. But next year, according to Orlando transit official Bill Schneeman, the system expects to earn about $175,000.

Joe Caruso says Milwaukee County signed a five-year contract with Itec Entertainment, so the TV monitors are here to stay. That doesn't sit well with Commercial Alert, a national media watchdog group based in Portland, Oregon. Director Gary Ruskin says public transportation is just one more venue for advertisers to infiltrate society. "This is ad creep. This is the creep of ads into every nook and cranny of our lives and culture," he says. "People deserve some rest from the commercial bombardment they get."

Bus riders in other U.S. cities may soon see monitors on their morning commutes. Atlanta, San Diego, Miami and Chicago have all expressed an interest, though it's not certain when any of them would see the revenue these bus ads are supposed to produce.