The hyperventilating from News Corp over the Victorian government’s decision to nix Sky News from its train station screens has been amusing — we await tens of thousands of words from The Australian on how it’s an outrageous attack on free speech — but obscures a more interesting backstory.

The reason commuters have Sky inflicted on them whether they like it or not is because rail authorities across the states have relentlessly monetised the public spaces they control — and the fact that commuters have to wait for services to arrive, often far longer than they should due to the poor quality of rail services. 

We’re no longer talking about traditional billboard ads here. APN’s XtrackTV was launched in 2014: digital billboards, nearly 4m by 2m, capable of full motion and audio with, “stunning pixel pitch of 5mm – SMD,” according to a partner company, which showed how great the screens would be for beer ads. The screens, designed for rail stations, were initially rolled out in Sydney’s rail network — 32 screens — and Melbourne — 30 — before being extended to Brisbane, Adelaide and, last year, in Perth, bringing the total national number to 82. According to a PR blurb from APN, rail “is the perfect environment for our partners and advertisers to influence consumers during their commute. Consumers are seeking to be informed and entertained during their “empty moment” on the rail platform.” Advertisers and marketers seem to live in a fantasy world where we love ads: one marketing “study” found about commuters “61% said they like seeing advertising on XtrackTV.”

Now before, anyone says “Crikey runs ads”, we do; most commercial media run ads. But when you open Crikey, or turn on your TV, you are choosing to interact with that product, knowing there are ads. Commuters have little choice. They are captive eyeballs to be monetised, whether they want to be or not, as part of the advertising and marketing industries’ quest to ensure no one participating in 21st century life can escape being advertised to every waking hour. The fact that XtrackTV has audio extends this encroachment on personal space and time far beyond traditional billboard advertising.

What content is on XtrackTV? Initially it was provided by Brand New Media, stuff like Health ME TV spruiking wellness pabulum like “Detox Kits For An All-Natural Wellness Cleanse”; “content” in the purest sense of the word — audio-visual stuffing. But Brand New Media went into administration in 2016; a couple of months before, Sky came on board XtrackTV. The then-CEO of APN said “our audiences demand up-to-the-moment content that is specific to their cities and the time of day, and Sky News’ expertise in this area allows us to truly deliver what the market wants.” Sky News CEO Angelo Frangopoulos was delighted. “We are constantly looking for innovative ways to deliver our live breaking news coverage to a premium audience. The partnership with APN Outdoor allows us the opportunity to speak to a vast and growing national audience, and we look forward to keeping them up to date as they’re on the move throughout the working week.” Which is a nice way of describing inflicting content on people whether they want it or not.

It’s not clear what the value of the XtrackTV system is to public transport authorities across the states in terms of revenue, but APN boasted in 2014 that “XtrackTV will deliver over 8.4 million gross contacts per week” in Sydney and Melbourne alone. APN’s 2017 annual report identified $100m in transit revenue, but said rail had “underperformed”.

Sky is insisting that the involuntary audience was not subjected to a Nazi — sorry, “activist” — last Sunday. That misses the point that if your editorial systems are so shoddy that you allow Nazis on air, there’s an ongoing risk of commuters being exposed to hate speech. But doubtless we’ll hear all about how the right of Sky to be inflicted on commuters is another front in the valiant efforts by the right to protect free speech.

Free speech of course does not include a right to be heard. But in a society where our right to use public transport without being subject to relentless “content” has been monetised away by government and ad firms, that seems to have been lost. No one ever talks about a right to silence.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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