Billboard owners seek to go digital

Massachusetts – The signs are everywhere, especially along Interstate 290 and in and around Worcester. And if billboard companies in the state have their way, those signs may soon be digital.

Representatives from the billboard industry are hoping to persuade the Massachusetts Outdoor Advertising Board (OAB) to allow the digital signs along the state’s highways by the end of the summer. The latest in technology, digital billboards are now permitted in 43 states in the U.S., and have the look of a 14- by 48-foot television screen. The Outdoor Advertising Association of America estimates there are currently 400 digital billboards nationwide.

“I think it’s the next step in technology,” says Joe Murray, president of Shrewsbury-based Murray Outdoor Communications, which owns billboards throughout Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, including seven two-sided billboards in the Worcester area.

Rule change

Steve Hebert, vice president and general manager of the Springfield and Hartford, Conn., areas for Lamar Advertising, is one of the industry execs leading the charge to bring the shimmering electronic boards to the Worcester area and Massachusetts generally.

Hebert, along with representatives from Murray Outdoor, Clear Channel Outdoor in Stoneham, and CBS Outdoor, have approached the OAB about tweaking existing regulations to allow the signs. He says that it may be possible, under current Massachusetts law, to convert existing signs along the state’s highways into digital billboards. Current state law allows for what is known as a “tri-vision billboard,” which as the name implies, displays three images through rotating slats. With some amended language, Hebert says the digital signs could be made legal in the state.

William Hicks, counsel to the OAB, agreed that “in some ways it may be possible to interpret existing law” to allow the digital billboards, provided the signs are “limited to three messages.”

However, Hicks says no formal proposal from industry representatives had come before the OAB, and that the board has begun looking at other states, such as Connecticut, for guidance on how to proceed.

Connecticut only recently passed legislation paving the way for the trendy sign technology.

Lamar installed the first digital billboard in the Hartford, CT area in late 2005 along I-84. Last year, Lamar added a second digital display along the same stretch of highway, as well as three along Interstate 95 near Bridgeport.

Zoned out

Hebert says that the digital signs are a must for growth in the outdoor advertising world, because of ever-tightening zoning restrictions on erecting new signs.

“At the end of each year, we end up with fewer and fewer structures because of zoning,” he says. “This is the only way our industry can go, because we’re not out there building brand new billboards.”

Hebert also says that the digital billboards can be viewed as a positive for communities because one structure offers space for multiple ads.

Murray acknowledged that the digital billboards do have their downsides, mainly because “an advertiser doesn’t like to share space with other people.” And although one digital board can rotate between numerous images – typically changing every six to eight seconds – Murray says it isn’t an automatic financial boon for billboard space purveyors.

“You end up having to charge less (per ad),” he says.

For advertisers, the bonus is flexibility and lowered cost. The major investment for a billboard ad along a highway is typically the printing. Digital billboards eliminate that cost and allow an advertiser to adjust the ads on an on-demand basis. For example, Lamar has a system where an advertiser just uploads a new image, and once approved, it appears on the billboard.

Safety matters

But some communities have fought efforts to convert traditional billboards into the new digital versions, arguing that they create a distraction along highways.

However, Hebert says he has received only one complaint in the last year-and-a-half since the Hartford digital boards went up, and says drivers are generally more distracted by their cell phones than by a digital sign pitching high-interest savings accounts.

The Federal Highway Administration, however, is looking at the matter, allocating funds for a study evaluating the risk to drivers, according to a recent article in The New York Times. Those in the industry are playing down the potential distraction, and playing up the potential use of the signs for public safety.

Mary Burns, principal of Capital Media in Boston, which has one billboard in Worcester, says the digital signs can be used by the police or other authorities to disseminate important messages, like an Amber Alert, which notifies the public about abducted children. “They do have a dual purpose if need be,” she says.

Drew Hoffman, senior vice president for real estate and public affairs for Clear Channel Outdoor – which also owns a significant number of Worcester area billboards – says the intention is to have digital displays with “no flashing, no scrolling, no movement.”

“Every eight seconds the signs will flip from one ad to another, similar to a PowerPoint slide,” he says.

Billboard Connection

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