by Mark Jewell

CBS News

July 28, 2004

(AP) Gannett Co. and a young company the media giant bought in April are teaming up to cash in on those awkward moments of avoiding eye contact that can make an elevator a place of silent suffering.

Gannett and Captivate Network are staking their newly announced growth plans on the belief that captive audiences will be happier if they can watch something other than elevator floor buttons twinkling on and off.

Enter elevator video, which gives office workers something to do with their riding time but also intrudes on one of the few remaining places to get relief from information overload.

Gannett and Captivate Network, along with a handful of smaller foreign and domestic rivals, see the elevator as a sort of upwardly mobile theater where viewers can digest news headlines, sports scores, weather updates and – of course – advertisements.

For better or worse, the companies are persuading skyscraper building managers to pay to install the flat screens in their elevators. The screens provide a silent, video-only stream of media content. Part of the screen is devoted to text and graphics supplied by media partners such as CNN, The Weather Channel and The Wall Street Journal, with a smaller section featuring ads.

Captivate Network is confident it can win over advertisers who want to reach the kind of people who populate skyscraper elevators.

“Initially, they’re targeting real upscale addresses,” said Tobey Sommer, a media and publishing analyst for SunTrust Robinson Humphrey. “I think they’ve done their homework regarding their effectiveness and efficacy regarding the ads.”

Captivate Network announced this month that the flat screens will appear in eight more North American cities, beyond the dozen cities from Boston to Atlanta to Calgary where the service has been offered on 4,500 screens for a couple of years.

The expansion will add another 4,000 screens over the next 20 months, something the 40-employee company says would have been impossible without Gannett’s financial resources behind it. Gannett, of McLean, Va., bought Captivate Network for an undisclosed price.

Sommer said his optimism about the future of elevator video is based in part on research indicating American consumers are largely willing to put up with captive-audience advertising. Media ratings company Arbitron Inc. reported survey results last year indicating cinema audiences do not mind advertisements before films and consider them more acceptable than advertising on the Internet.

Still, there is resistance.

“In American culture, there’s no place to hide,” said Ted Rueter, director of Noise Free America, a New Orleans-based group dedicated to fighting noise and visual pollution.

Mike DiFranza, president and general manager of Captivate Network, said his company realized the potential for problems and relied on viewer research in deciding against audio with the images on its elevator video screens.

The company also considered viewer input in choosing to keep programming on screen at all times and never allow advertising to swallow up the entire screen.

DiFranza said Captivate Network will not depart from that formula as it expands into office towers in eight new markets this year: Columbia, S.C.; Denver; Hartford, Conn.; Memphis, Tenn.; Minneapolis; Philadelphia; Seattle; and Washington, D.C.

The company also is revising its pricing structure, eliminating an upfront fee building managers paid to install a screen in an elevator in favor of a monthly subscriber fee.

DiFranza hopes the spread of his company’s screens will usher in an era of social interaction in elevators.

“You’ll see people talking to each other about what they see on the screen,” he predicted.