College cafeteria serves hot meals with a side dish of news

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and a side order of the latest on Lebanon. At Simmons College here, meals now come with a light serving of news. The all-woman school received an electronic news board on Feb. 16. The six-inch by five-foot digital display, hung at one end of Bartol Hall, flashes a continuous diet of news, sports, and entertainment briefs as well as campus events.

Cost to the college? Nothing.

Simmons has joined the ranks of 375 college cafeterias and student lounges hooked into two free nationwide news networks. In the last year, a couple of Texas-based companies have raced to get their display boards in place. By year's end, the companies expect 40 percent of some 2,200 colleges and universities in the United States will be getting their news in lights.

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The payoff, hope the video news venturers, will come when the advertising dollars roll in. The college market is an elusive one and the student's disposable income is estimated to be about $25 billion. The Bruner News Network (BNN) and The Electronic News Network (ENN) each intend to sell space to advertisers wanting to tap those college-bound bucks.

In the dash to sign up schools, ENN was first out of the blocks. In two years it has put 130 boards in as many colleges with 50 more schools under contract. More important, the Dallas firm has advertisers.

''We're currently running national ads for Josten's (class rings), the Wall Street Journal, Golf Digest, Tennis Magazine, and Personal Records and Tapes,'' ticks off Mel Caraway, operations manager at ENN. On average, the company has filled 40 percent of its allotted advertising space.

Meanwhile, its competitor has signed up fewer advertisers (only 3 to 5 percent of the allotted space is filled), but more schools. In one year of operation, BNN has delivered electronic boards to 245 schools, has contracts for another 165 to be operational by April 1, and expects to sign an additional 300 institutions before Christmas. By contrast, ENN plans to connect with a total of 200 schools this year. Currently, the two firms are almost equal in numbers of readers reached: roughly 2 million.

What are readers getting?

In an average eight- to 10-minute cycle: four or more minutes of news, two minutes of school announcements, and two minutes or less of advertisments.

The news spots are ''halfway between a headline and a radio broadcast,'' says Caraway at ENN. Both services rely primarily upon United Press International for the news. And each firm enters its broadcast into a bank of Apple IIe computers which automatically telephone each board.

Students at Simmons generally praise the service. ''The news is excellent. We don't get enough here. We're so out of touch with things because we don't have enough time to read the newspaper or watch TV,'' says Sarah Shealy, a communications major.

''Newspapaer sales are going up in locations with the board. We wet their appetite for news,'' Caraway claims.

However, some Simmons students, such as senior Jill Wolfe, find the display ''distracting. We come here to eat and relax,'' she complains. Others were dubious about being ''bombarded'' by the advertising that has yet to appear.

To date, Simmons, Suffolk University, Stonehill College, Bunker Hill Community College, and Curry College are the only schools in the metropolitan area to have received the news service. ''We haven't done too well with the Ivy League schools,'' admits Larry Markley at BNN. ''They think it is trendy or say that 'It doesn't fit in with their philosophy.' ''

Meanwhile, BNN is plugging into other markets. It has located in four military installations, two convenience stores and two of TWA's 21 Ambassador Clubs. The Grand Prairie-based company also has plans to introduce the service to banks.

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