New 24-hour traffic channel on TV here finding viewers

Chris Cantz, a director at Tango Traffic , monitors PennDot cameras and local traffic feeds from offices in a warehouse in Malvern. The company is working on a mobile app and a Web platform, promising the ability to get route information in almost real time.
Chris Cantz, a director at Tango Traffic , monitors PennDot cameras and local traffic feeds from offices in a warehouse in Malvern. The company is working on a mobile app and a Web platform, promising the ability to get route information in almost real time.
Posted: February 03, 2011

News, weather, and sports 24/7.

Why not traffic?

From a warehouse on a side street in Malvern, Tango Traffic went on the air Jan. 1 to report rubbernecking and crashes, whether at the height of rush hour or in the dead of night or the middle of a storm like the one that covered roads with ice Tuesday and Wednesday.

Although KYW-AM (1060) reads traffic and transit "on the 2's" around the clock on the radio, Tango's creators say they saw a void in the marketplace.

"People want information where they want it and when they want it and how they want it," said chief executive Tim Chambers, an entrepreneur with a background in television and filmmaking whose operation, Quaker Media, is partnering with Tribune Co.'s PHL17.

The station airs on digital Channel 17.4, and is also carried on Comcast Channel 253 and various Verizon FiOS channels.

Nearly a month after launch, Tango's "where" and "how" are almost there. A mobile app and a Web platform, promising users the ability to select a route and get information in almost real time on their phones and computers, are less than 30 days away, the company said.

For now, Tango's live anchors - including traffic veterans Jason Lee Sklar, Kristen Celins, Vittoria Woodill, and Stephanie Humphrey - appear on-screen during morning and evening rush hours (4 to 10 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m.). They narrate brightly illustrated maps and discuss real-time video while a crawl describes hot spots. Middays and later in the evening, off-screen producers narrate video from traffic cameras operated by Pennsylvania's and New Jersey's Departments of Transportation. From 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., Tango plays music with the video - its so-called Jams and Cams. ("Slow Ride," by Foghat, accompanied a view of the westbound Schuylkill Expressway during the snowstorm last week.)

"Every minute, there's a new, breaking story," said Suzanne Harris, the vice president of marketing.

The recent snowstorms imbued the live reports with extra drama as the anchors wove in mass-transit and airport delays. Some heeded their own advice and stayed overnight in hotels to save a drive home.

Accidents and breakdowns do appear on-screen on occasion as they happen. (Where they happen can be another story. When no one is narrating, it can be difficult to identify the locations from certain cameras. "Everything is evolving and improving in real time," Harris said. "We're trailblazing.")

Tango has no field reporters or spotter vehicles. In a control room, producers collect information from the video cameras and road-speed sensors and mesh it with reports from Navteq-owned Traffic.com, which provides data to local television stations such as WCAU, KYW, and WPVI.

John Acello, the vice president and general manager, said a casting call in the fall attracted hundreds of audition tapes from people eager to stand in front of a green screen and ad-lib while small cars rush by.

Tango has about 10 full-time anchors, plus about 15 people in production.

"It will be interesting to see how many people want to see that kind of programming," said Leonard Lodish, a professor of marketing and vice dean at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, who would not assess Tango's chances for success.

"Traffic reports are extremely well-listened-to," Lodish said, pointing out radio-listener studies in which audiences that were exposed to programming of music and traffic found that even day-old traffic reports were interesting.

"Thirty years ago, everybody laughed at CNN, and 20 years ago, a lot of people were laughing at ESPN," said Christopher Harper, a journalism professor at Temple University whose background is in network news. "Do we really need a traffic station? For a group of people, the answer is yes."

Harper worries that the mobile app, if used while driving, will result in more distracted drivers. He also wonders why Tango's website does not carry live feeds now. "It cheapens the brand," he said.

The idea for Tango came up about five years ago when Chambers was developing programming for Comcast Corp., including real estate on demand. (At the time, Chambers was preparing to direct a feature film about the 1972 Immaculata College basketball national championship team, The Mighty Macs, due in theaters in March.)

Comcast executives decided that "other things were more important," Chambers said. He said they suggested that he speak with Vince Giannini, vice president and general manager of PHL17.

Giannini said he was on board and got the backing of his station's parent, Tribune.

"But they didn't have channel space," Chambers said.

The digital-TV transition was on the horizon. In the switch from analog to digital television completed in 2009, broadcasters were given subchannels to provide additional programming. WPVI-TV airs weather at Channel 6.3. WCAU-TV launched Nonstop, an NBC-branded news and lifestyle channel, at 10.2. Comcast and Verizon provide spots for the programming on their converter boxes.

The digital TV launch dovetailed perfectly with Tango's plans.

Chambers got financial backing from Vince Curran, whose background is in media and real estate. They were joined by two men with with backgrounds in traffic and television: Al McGowan, a creator of Traffic.com, and Kevin O'Kane, a broadcast veteran who had been general manager of UPN57, now known as CW57. McGowan and O'Kane are still principals in a Wayne-based broadcast-archive company called Redlasso.

O'Kane sees Tango's mobile app - a "two-way conversation," unlike similar apps that merely show highway cameras - as traffic's future.

"Traffic is community," he said. He predicts that people will bond through the apps as they share video and still photos (taken from the passenger seat, of course).

"It's . . . the one thing people have in common," O'Kane said.


Go behind the scenes

with Tango Traffic at http://tinyurl.com/4mgq7od


Contact staff writer Michael Klein at mklein@phillynews.com.

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