Attack of the Subway Video Ads: Cash Cow or "Invasion"?

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The announcement that video ads are coming to the subway--in the form of playoff baseball highlights beamed by TBS to specially equipped cars on the 42nd Street Shuttle--was met mostly with goggling over the technology that embeds TV screens in train car walls, mixed with plaintive sighs that, given what MTA chair Jay Walder charitably called the authority's "uncertain finances," watching clips of Reds-Padres games was better than yet another fair hike.

Still, it's possible to detect an undercurrent of griping that in bringing video to an underground realm formerly ruled by paperbacks and iPods, the MTA has crossed a line that was best left unbreached. Gawker called it an "invasion" that is "going to do nothing but piss New Yorkers off." The Observer (after noting that "For that real bleacher experience, the seats inside the cars have been made to look like those at Yankee Stadium"--what, they took out the seat backs?) complained, "Do New Yorkers really need to be assaulted by even more omnipresent advertising?" before immediately waffling: "Then again, anything to stave off further fare hikes."

New York has been through this debate before, more than a century ago. In 1902, the Municipal Art Society launched a years-long campaign to rein in advertising billboards, which were then viewed by a certain swath of New Yorkers as a public menace on par with graffiti. "Why should the municipality, after taking so much laudable pains to make a 'City Beautiful,' permit the whole effect to be marred by the creation nearby, without any regulation for appearance sake, of monster signs and posters?" asked the society's John Martin, as recounted in Gregory Gilmartin's official MAS history, Shaping the City.

MAS tried everything from taxing billboards by the square foot to banning ads on the then-new subway on the grounds that it was a "public thoroughfare." ("It is no more lawful to put advertising signs [in the subway] than it would be to place frames along the curb of Broadway and fill them with posters," argued Martin. "Doubtless a large revenue might be got if the gutters were so adorned, but ... the law forbids such a misuse of the streets.") None of it worked, as a combination of opposition from Tammany Hall (which saw in advertising contracts a fine source of graft) and indifference from the public (which turned out to be okay with subway ads once they were required to stop obscuring station signage) doomed the campaign to failure, ushering in the age of Miss Subways and Dr. Z.

Until now, the current wave of underground ad expansion has been limited to plastering logos on floors and walls and those goofy interactive ads where you can scatter Travelers umbrellas like Park Slope trees in a macroburst. (Billboard purveyor CBS Outdoor humbly calls this its "station domination" package.) In that light, silent 10-inch-high baseball highlights seem pretty benign — though many of us would no doubt feel differently if the screens were showing, say, ads for "$#*! Your Dad Says," which you have to figure they one day will be, once the horse is out the barn door.

The MAS has bigger fish to fry these days, so for perspective we turn instead to Ben Kabak, who as proprietor of both the Yankees blog River Avenue Blues and the subway blog Second Avenue Sagas is probably the one human best positioned to comment on all this. As a baseball fan, he says, he's always happy to see the sport promoted. As a subway rider, meanwhile, he responds much as his predecessors did 100 years ago, with a resounding "meh."

"I know many people feel that moving ads in particular are an unnecessary evil or even a necessary evil, but since day one, the operators of New York's subway system have sold advertisements for available open spaces," says Kabak. "It was only a matter of time before video ads came to the subway, as the technology has existed for years."

Kabak sighs plaintively: "I wish the MTA had more secure financial footing and didn't have to be so aggressive in milking dollars out of advertising, but at least the ads look sharp. And hey, it's baseball."

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