Los Angeles' LED Billboards Draw Opposition Hundreds of Los Angeles' 11,000 billboards are going digital — lighting up neighborhoods with flashing LED ads selling Coke, sitcoms and designer clothing. Some are, however, complaining about light pollution. Now the City Council is considering the billboards' environmental impact.
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Los Angeles' LED Billboards Draw Opposition

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Los Angeles' LED Billboards Draw Opposition

Los Angeles' LED Billboards Draw Opposition

Los Angeles' LED Billboards Draw Opposition

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Hundreds of Los Angeles' 11,000 billboards are going digital — lighting up neighborhoods with flashing LED ads selling Coke, sitcoms and designer clothing. Some are, however, complaining about light pollution. Now the City Council is considering the billboards' environmental impact.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Well now, we're going to go back to the future of advertising.

(Soundbite of movie "Bladerunner")

Unidentified Announcer: A new life awaits you in the off-world colony.

SIEGEL: The 1982 film "Bladerunner" depicted a dystopian future in Los Angeles circa 2019. LA was illuminated by loud and pulsing electronic ads. Well, welcome to 2008. For some current and real residents of Los Angeles, that sci-fi vision of their city's future has arrived, as Gloria Hillard reports.

GLORIA HILLARD: On the deck of her quiet hillside home in Los Angeles, Christina Pipkin describes the day when everything changed.

Ms. CHRISTINA PIPKIN (Los Angeles Resident): The sun went down and all of a sudden, we were having our glass of wine out on the deck and looked and saw a bright shiny object that was changing every 10 seconds.

HILLARD: Lest you think this was just another UFO sighting, keep listening.

Ms. PIPKIN: It was a new billboard.

HILLARD: Now there are an estimated 11,000 billboards in Los Angeles. But the one in Pipkin's sights is what they call a digital billboard. Her neighbor, Susan Heibert(ph) says think..

Ms. SUSAN HEIBERT (Los Angeles Resident): A JumboTron, you know, like at a football game. Like a scoreboard or, you know, something like that.

Ms. PIPKIN: Our neighbors are pretty much in an uproar. They don't really know what to do, you know, who to call. We just don't understand how this happened.

HILLARD: For the answer to that question, anti-billboard activists say you have to go back to 2002. That's when Los Angeles declared a ban on certain new billboards. The billboard giants sued challenging the ordinance. Two years ago, the city settled the lawsuit by brokering a deal that allowed the billboard companies to convert some 850 billboards to the plasma screen variety.

Mr. DENNIS HATHAWAY (President, Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight in Los Angeles): I think that our visual environment is just being completely degraded.

HILLARD: Dennis Hathaway is the president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight in Los Angeles.

Mr. HATHAWAY: The city is basically under siege from the outdoor advertising industry. That's the way we look at it.

HILLARD: Anti-billboard activists maintain the 24 hour digital billboards have stolen the night from their neighborhoods. They blame city officials from the mayor's office to the city attorney, to the Los Angeles City Council, which approved the deal. LA City Councilman Jack Weiss.

Mr. JACK WEISS (5th District of the City Council): Well, I'm one of several people on the council who look back on that vote with a lot of regret.

HILLARD: Weiss has now become an outspoken critic, not only of the digital billboards, but the so-called super graphics that literally drape tall buildings in the city, and he says, the $7.2 billion outdoor advertising industry is a formidable foe.

Mr. WEISS: Every new law is a guaranteed new lawsuit. The revenue that they receive for these signs is astronomical. That's why it's always worth their while to sue first and ask questions later.

Mr. JEFF GOLIMOWSKI (Spokesman, Outdoor Advertising Association): Billboards have been a part of Americana for over 100 years and digital billboards are the next generation of billboards.

HILLARD: Jeff Golimowski is a spokesman for the Outdoor Advertising Association.

Mr. GOLIMOWSKI: They're not overly bright. In fact, they're using just a fraction of their power at night, as opposed to during the day when they have to be brighter in order to be seen with the glare of the sun.

HILLARD: And on the street, in the glare of the afternoon sun, the billboards do have their fans like Eugene Frank and Annie Maguire.

Mr. EUGENE FRANK (Billboard Fan): I like them. They're very pleasing to the eye.

Ms. ANNIE MAGUIRE (Billboard Fan): They look really good. I think they work really well, too. It's nice to get a variety of ads.

HILLARD: But in response to constituent backlash against the electronic signage, the LA City Council is asking that the digital billboards be subject to review under state environmental laws. It is also proposing a six month moratorium on new digital billboards. Meanwhile, from her deck on a warm Los Angeles night, Christina Pipkin stares out at the tree framed plasma screen on the horizon.

Ms. PIPKIN: So, I think that's a movie preview. I mean, it looks like "Madagascar"

HILLARD: On the bright side, she says, she's up to date on all the new movies coming out. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

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