Digital billboards: Public service in Boston, public nuisance to other cities

Electronic billboards in Washington, D.C.

On the day of the Boston Marathon, people heard the news about bombs exploding from their radio or their TV or the Internet. Some people in Boston got the news from giant digital billboards suddenly converted into giant public message boards. But the very same day that Boston billboards lit up with messages, 77 digital billboards in Los Angeles went dark, after a judge ruled that they were in violation of the law.

Opponents of digital billboards say they distract drivers. People who live near them complain that their thousands of LED bulbs shine into their homes at night. Billboard companies like Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor argue they don't distract drivers and they provide a valuable public service.

The digital billboards around Boston displayed messages that said, "Two explosions at marathon finish." Meanwhile 3,000 miles across the country in Los Angeles, Dennis Hathaway noticed that the digital billboard near his house wasn't working.

"I walk my dog every morning and I walk by that billboard at seven in the morning and it was dark," says Hathaway.

He wasn't surprised that the billboard had been shut off. In fact, he was quite happy about it. He's the president of a nonprofit called Ban Billboard Blight, which has been fighting to have many of the city's digital billboards removed.

"The billboards themselves went up without any notice to surrounding property owners," Hathaway says. "They shined in peoples windows. They were in intersections where there was a lot of pedestrian and motor traffic."

Ban Billboard Blight isn't opposed to digital billboards. The organization believes they should be confined to commercial and industrial areas and not be allowed to shine in residential neighborhoods.

This same battle is being waged between outdoor advertising companies and the public in cities across the country. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel recently proposed a plan approve 30 digital billboards, which he says will bring in $15 million a year to the city. Durham, N.C., banned all digital billboards, and in New Jersey, a judge recently struck down a digital billboard ban.

"The federal government as represented by the Federal Highway Administration put out guidance in 2007," says Ken Klein with the Outdoor Advertising Association of America.

Ultimately, the Highway Administration left it up to states to decide how to regulate digital billboards. But it did make recommendations. The signs should not be placed in areas that would compromise public safety, they shouldn't be unreasonably bright and each image should be displayed for 8 seconds.

"So the attraction of that advertiser is the speed, the flexibility the ability to change the message as often as necessary," Klein says.

Those are the same attributes that make billboards useful tools for law enforcement. Since 2007, the FBI has had a partnership with digital billboard company Clear Channel that allows them to post Amber Alerts. And as they did during Thursday's manhunt display photos of the Boston Bombing suspects.

The FBI says that digital billboards have led to the apprehension of 51 fugitives in those six years, a number that Outdoor ad companies will likely cite as they continue to lobby local governments.

About the author

David Weinberg is a general assignment reporter at Marketplace.

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