Los Angeles Digital Billboards Go Dark in Blight Battle

A battle by Los Angeles homeowners over visual “blight” that shut off digital billboards across the city is shifting as Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings Inc. (CCO) seeks to restore signs that are central to its business model.

Almost 100 darkened billboards loom over boulevards and streets, switched off in mid-April after a judge rejected a deal between the second-largest U.S. city and sign-operators Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor Inc. The agreement attempted to sidestep a moratorium on digital installations except in special areas.

Los Angeles, which dealt with $1.6 billion in combined deficits over the past four years, collects no franchise fees on billboards, according to Luke Zamperini, who administers their regulation for the Building and Safety Department. Clear Channel is negotiating with City Council members on a “legislative solution” involving a permitting fee, said Greg McGrath, president of its Southern California division.

“Los Angeles is home to the entertainment industry,” McGrath said. “It’s home to the outdoor industry. We’ve been in Los Angeles for over a century. Here we are in the home of the entertainment industry, the digital industry, and we’re unable to use them in our own hometown.”

Los Angeles, with more roadway miles along which to display billboards than New York or Chicago, is defined partly by its signs. The letters spelling out Hollywood, erected in 1923 to promote a housing development, are world famous. Singer and actress Angelyne drew attention for buying cleavage-baring billboards promoting herself. She finished 28th among 125 candidates running for governor in a 2003 recall election that catapulted Arnold Schwarzenegger to the state’s highest office.

Billboard Plan

Clear Channel Outdoor, a unit of San Antonio-based radio-station owner Clear Channel Communications Inc., operates about 1,500 billboards in Los Angeles. McGrath said Clear Channel is willing to contribute permitting fees as part of a “comprehensive legislative solution” that would reduce its total number of billboards and move certain signs. He declined to say how much the company might offer. A spokeswoman for CBS Outdoor, Shannon Jacobs, declined to comment.

Mayor Eric Garcetti, who took office July 1, “supported the recent court decision against digital billboards in L.A. and is keeping an eye on subsequent developments,” said Yusef Robb, a spokesman. “His priority is to work with neighbors to keep unwanted billboards out of communities.”

The billboard industry may be encouraged because it backed three new city council members elected this year, according to city filings. There are 15 seats on the panel.

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Vol 11 Issue 61

Pub: July 29, 2013