A ride for the couch potato

Advertising: TV fare is being added for bus passengers
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Travellers in the North-west and the Midlands have been provided with an alternative to the usual bus journey pastimes of eavesdropping, staring out the window, and reading other people's newspapers. They can now watch television, too.

Since November, passengers on their way to work or the shops have been able to watch cookery programmes, sports items and arts issues from the comfort of their bus seat.

The idea comes from a company called The Original Passenger Picture Show (Topps). Topps is backed by private investment and is part of a joint venture with British Bus, a £230m company that operates 4,000 buses nationwide.

The specially made mini programmes have been crafted to last around 20 minutes, after research showed that the average bus journey is no longer than 18 minutes.

The programmes go out on a three-hour videotape loop, which is started at different times of the day so that travellers catching a certain bus every day are not subjected to repeat items.

The are broadcast from 14in, high-definition tv monitors and speakers dotted around the vehicle. The level of sound is automatically adjusted to the roar of the engine, preventing passengers from being blasted out.

Topps is also an advertising medium. While advertising has been used on the outside of buses for as long as they have existed, Topps claims to be the first company to advertise on buses using television.

Advertising is the sole source of revenue for the company, although payment for sponsorship programmes is an option currently being discussed. So far, household names such as Bass, Virgin and Nestle Rowntree provide commercial breaks using their latest campaigns from conventional television.

Topps was set up with £12m backing after British Bus asked its then marketing director, Maurice Hawker, to devise a way to make bus travelling more comfortable and profitable. Brainstorming sessions came up with on-board television, which was initally tested on 12 buses in Telford last year.

The results of the trial were so promising that in November the company decided to extend the scheme to 800 more buses serving Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and surrounding areas.

Research revealed that 84 per cent of passengers found the new service, which is produced by Channel Television, "surprisingly entertaining and informative". Initially, only a third of passengers were positive about the scheme but by the end of the trialthat proportion had risen to 47 per cent.

Bus drivers approved of Topps because they said it made passengers better behaved.

Most importantly, the advertisers who took part in the Telford experiment, such as General Accident, found that awareness of their advertisements soared.

"The results were quite staggering. We are now trying to raise more money to extend Topps to the remaining 3,200 British Bus buses by summer 1995," said Mr Hawker, Topps chief executive.

"We are at a crossroads at the moment and working out our calculations for beyond summer 1995. There are 90,000 buses in the UK and 15 million adults travelling by bus. Topps is viable for every bus, and we realise we should be rolling out the scheme faster than we were initially," he added.

It is still too early to deduce accurately the popularity of Topps, but research to be published next month will provide a clearer picture.

Meanwhile, it is evident that - perhaps not surprisingly - the idea has been better received by younger passengers than it has by older ones. However, this problem could probably be addressed by making programmes specifically for pensioners and broadcasting them at the times of day they are likely to travel.

Topps is certainly moving towards closer targeting. It is looking to make local programmes, prgrammes for businesses and programmes for schoolchildren. And there is the suggestion of a Topps soap opera.

The company has even beaten the Americans to it. Mr Hawker is talking to TDI, a US media firm that has moved into transport advertising in London and beyond, about setting up across the Atlantic.