In-mall and in-store TV is an idea whose time has come — again. A decade after special mall-based TV networks came (and largely went), they are making a comeback. Within two weeks of each other in May, Urban Retail Properties Co. unveiled a new in-store television network, called URTV, aimed at retailers, and Simon Property Group said that it would deploy the OnSpot Digital Network in common areas at its properties.

Working with a content provider in Canada, the Urban network will broadcast exclusive content to stores subscribing to the service. But that is only the beginning. The service can work in real time and is customizable down to the individual store, giving retailers complete control over the content they air in stores. It could also provide a source of advertising revenue for retailers. The technology will enable companies to conduct live employee training or other broadcasts from corporate headquarters to store locations. The venture will use satellite technology to broadcast content. The company has not announced any initial commitments from retailers.

Urban Retail CEO Ross Glickman says that, unlike the common-areas TV systems, his is for retailers and can provide training, merchandising instructions and other programming for employees, too. “This is the absolute antithesis of the common area elements. Totally the opposite,” Glickman says. “Let's say you're a retailer and you have 100 stores. You have a floor set that typically will be sent to each store in a packet as a mailer. Each store manager and their assistants have to set up the floor for next season or the next product offering. What you'll be able to do now is have a head merchant for a retailer get on live and take you through setting up this floor set. It saves the cost of mailing and you're now dealing with people on a personal basis.”

The venture will also build on Urban's previously announced partnership with MGM as it will be able to use movies and programs from MGM's library on its network. Since URTV is aimed at retailers, it is not just aimed at Urban's existing portfolio of managed properties. Instead, Glickman has visions of the network being much broader.

In the mid to late 1990s, various retailers and developers invested in out-of-home television setups to entertain mall patrons and steer traffic to stores and particular merchandise. Most of those systems disappeared after failing to turn a profit. But in the new era of high-definition TV and the growing acceptance of TV programming everywhere, mall marketing experts say the systems may have more staying power.

Simon Property Group is diving in through the OnSpot Digital Network, a 50/50 joint venture with French ad giant Publicis Groupe. OnSpot will launch a new high-definition digital network to pump lifestyle programming, news, shopping-center content and consumer advertising to 2,000 screens at 50 Simon properties in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other markets. Screens will be positioned at major entrances, center courts, food courts, escalators, major corridors and other high-traffic areas.

Another service on the market is Clear Channel Malls, created by the radio and outdoor advertising giant. Its Digital Mall Network, which airs on screens in mall food courts, is currently being tested in a pilot program at nine malls in Los Angeles and New York

All of these initiatives are traveling a well-worn path of companies that eventually ran aground. Skytron Corp. went belly-up in 2002 after initially installing high-definition screens in 72 U.S. malls. Other failures included Café USA and Screenzone Media networks.

Glickman says URTV will not meet the same fate because of its ability to be customized and because it's geared directly to retailers as a revenue generator, rather than being something they are forced to subsidize through higher common-area maintenance fees.

“This is not digital signage. This is not a common-area electronic billboard. This is a television network that is business-oriented for the retailing community,” he says.