Hoping To Revive Downtowns, Cities Get In N.Y. State Of Mind

Big-screen video advertising is a major attraction in New York’s Times Square, but will it play in Peoria? Or—more immediately—Columbus, Ohio?

The latter city is one of several making efforts to bring the “Times Square effect” to downtowns grown dim in light and nightlife. Tweaking policies that have formerly discouraged potentially garish displays of advertising, the Columbus city council has developed a new “graphics plan” that encourages commercial wall art and big-screen video ads downtown.

The city’s first big video display lights up next month on top of the four-story CVS Building. A second large display is planned to be part of a major redevelopment at the city’s Capitol Square area and is expected to begin flashing sponsored messages in 2006.

“People are attracted to areas that are light, bright and full of energy,” said Bob McLaughlin, head of downtown development for Columbus. “The advertising community understands that we are opposed to traditional [street- level] billboards because they block the view. Murals and video-display screens … can actually add something to the urban landscape.”

That attitude is lighting a path for companies that create the technology as well as for the big-screen venues. Billboard Video, a Plano, Texas-based firm that acquired two-thirds of the so-called “spectaculars” at Times Square via a May merger with a company called Multimedia, projects revenue will triple this year, said CEO Bill Hall. Hall declined to provide specific financials for the privately held company, but he said orders for 2005 already surpass units sold this year. Competitors such as Daktronix, Barco and Lighthouse Technologies do more sports-arena work, while Hall said his company focuses on the outdoor LED ad market.

Billboard Video has projects in the works in Dallas, Los Angeles and Atlantic City, N.J., as well as in well-lit overseas venues like London, Hong Kong and Beijing. Improved technology that provides better contrast for daytime viewing, less maintenance, and the capacity for a central programmer to change all signs has made such displays an easier sell to both cities and clients, Hall noted.

“What we’re seeing with all these projects is that they’re being promoted by the city, which is a real switch,” Hall said. “Most didn’t want lighted areas in years past because they thought they were an eyesore.”

In City of Commerce, Calif., planners called for the use of the LED displays to draw attention to the declining Citadel Outlet Mall on the Interstate 5 freeway. The mall, whose exterior wall is a remnant of a Uniroyal plant built in 1929, was acquired by the city in 1999 and later sold to a developer. The Los Angeles suburb sought a developer that would draw attention to the site without marring the façade. A series of LED displays are being installed to front the freeway in 2005—an initiative that Hall said is Billboard Video’s biggest order ever.

While Columbus and City of Commerce have drawn no organized opposition to their LED screens, the same cannot be said of the city where such displays are most prevalent: New York. Manhattan Assembly member Scott Stringer has led a vocal campaign against the use of smaller LED screens at the entrances to subway tunnels. In a pilot project for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, Clear Channel Outdoor planned to provide 100 screens (installed by Britain’s Lighthouse Technologies) at subway entrances. But protests from neighbors have forced the removal of at least five screens.

“Suddenly, every residential neighborhood will look like the corner of 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue,” Stringer said. “It’s bad for residents and bad for the city.”

Clear Channel’s svp of marketing, Tony Alwin, argued that Stringer’s picketing efforts have not led to widespread opposition. “It’s good for New York, and we haven’t had many people complaining other than him, which is unusual,” Alwin said.

LED displays, because of the creative and eye-catching capabilities, allow companies such as Viacom and Clear Channel (the leading content providers for the displays), to charge more for the space, Hall said. While a typical billboard costs about $2-2.50 per thousand impressions, an outdoor LED display can charge $4-5. As for creative, adapting TV ads to outdoor video requires slowing the motion and limiting the message, which may be seen for only 10 seconds.