Darkened billboard on Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles (photo: Dennis Hathaway, Ban Billboard Blight)
Six years after agitators began complaining that large electronic billboards scattered around Los Angeles were a blight on neighborhoods, a threat to public health, a distraction to motorists and illegally approved by the city―and four months after a judge ruled they had to be turned off―77 brightly lit billboards went dark.
It took a second court order last Friday, giving the two owners of the billboards three days to turn them off, before this episode of the ongoing saga concluded. They vowed to be back and expressed concern in their press release that, contrary to the claims of its critics, public safety will suffer in their absence.
“Turning off these signs, even temporarily, hurts the community and the economy of the City of Los Angeles by eliminating a vital public safety and community resource and a valuable effective advertising tool for local and national businesses,” Clear Channel Outdoor spokesman David Grabert, VP of Marketing & Communication.
Clear Channel operates 67 of the signs. The remaining 22 signs are being separately dealt with.
The digital billboards are remnants of a deal gone south, starting in 2002 when Los Angeles passed a strict sign ordinance. Leading members of the sign industry sued. The resulting settlement in 2006 allowed the sign companies to convert more than 800 conventional billboards to digital. More legal action ensued to block the deal, with opposition coming from anti-sign groups, like the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, and small sign companies that had been cut out of the deal.
In 2009 the courts invalidated it, but grandfathered in 100 already-existing electronic signs. Last December, a three-judge panel of California's 2nd District Court of Appeal said the existing signs had to go, too. Clear Channel has threatened to sue the city for $100 million if a new arrangement isn’t reached.
The struggle over digital billboards in Los Angeles extends beyond the local level.
State Senator Alex Padilla introduced legislation in December that would exempt a proposed new downtown L.A. stadium from state laws that limit the use of electronic signs. Senate Bill 31 expands the kinds of products that can be advertised on digital signs and allows them to be offsite, up to 1,000 feet from the stadium.
It is opposed by anti-sign people and small sign companies that suspect the Legislature and governor may favor certain well-connected businesses.