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Billboard or Blight?

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Facing fresh threats from local legislators to rein in its business, the outdoor industry once again is using consumer research to short-circuit new zoning efforts regarding digital billboards. Only this time, in Los Angeles, the second largest outdoor advertising market in the U.S., the stakes are much higher.

Citing public safety concerns and urban blight, the city of Los Angeles and the state of California are considering measures that could restrict the growth of digital boards. At the end of 2008, L.A.’s City Council declared a 90-day moratorium on new digital boards, until it decides how to regulate them, including establishing 20 special sign districts. “The billboard companies have spent millions of dollars trying to fight the city’s efforts to protect our neighborhoods from visual blight.  Our goal is to give communities more control over where we put billboards in our neighborhoods,” said council president Eric Garcetti. The state also is considering a statewide moratorium on building more digital boards.

The Outdoor Advertising Association of America countered the moves by commissioning a study from Arbitron showing that public sentiment towards digital boards is favorable. “What you have is a very vocal minority, which is attempting to drive public policy,” said an OAAA representative.

The study found two-thirds (67 percent) of L.A. county residents don’t mind digital boards and that 16 percent like them. Fully 73 percent of the residents believe the digital signs provide important community services, such as the display of Amber alerts. Nearly half of viewers (47 percent) think digital billboards are attractive, 42 percent said the signs make their commute more interesting and 55 percent find that the signs display current and relevant information.

Digital boards have been a financial boon to outdoor companies, which have increased revenue from a single sign by several multiples. Outdoor media giants Clear Channel Outdoor (with 81 boards) and CBS Outdoor (with 17) are both dominant players in California and are adding more.

A number of studies conducted over the last two years offered evidence that digital boards were as safe as traditional ones. “The state is carrying a $44 billion deficit, and yet they want to spend more money to study [digital boards],” said Ryan Brooks, vp of government affairs, Western region, for CBS Outdoor. “Ironically, the California Transportation Department, in partnership with the highway patrol, has five times the number of digital boards than the industry, and those boards have reduced the number of accidents.”