Digital Billboards

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

Just when we have nearly conquered the plague of television commercials thanks to Tivo and the web, we now have giant commercials staring us in the face.

All over Los Angeles, the traditional flat billboards that were easy to ignore are being replaced by big digital screens that dare you to not look.

The other day I was stopped at an intersection on the way home and the humongous video screen in front of me got my attention by mentioning my very location: Pico and Gateway.

It was a come-on for a movie that's opening soon. I've seen back to back ads for different movies on the screens near my house. At night, I've heard they fill space with public service ads for wanted criminals and warnings about drunk driving.

When you look across Los Angeles from up in the hills, the new digital billboards are becoming the most prominent nighttime sight in some neighborhoods. They are much bigger and bolder than the signs on local businesses.

They're a new feature on the landscape. Or a blight.

How did this happen? Who decided that we would all be subjected to brightly lit, full action commercials selling stuff to us as we drive or ride the bus.

This time it's not too much of a generalization to put the blame on City Hall.

The mayor, the city council and especially City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo have had a pretty cozy relationship with the billboard industry. The city has some tepid regulations, but when the industry sued, City Hall caved and gave away the rights to change old boards into the intrusive new TV screens.

In fact, City Hall can't even say how many of LA's thousands of billboards are illegal – because the lobby has been so effective through the years at co-opting public officials.

Only now that people are screaming about being assaulted by bright moving pictures in their neighborhood are the politicians taking any notice.

The planning commission has called for a moratorium on new conversions, but I won't hold my breath.

Billboards have been an issue in LA politics since at least the days of Gaylord Wilshire. If you've never heard of him, only his boulevard, you're missing one of the most fascinating LA characters to ever come along.

Wilshire was born wealthy in Ohio and, after dropping out of Harvard, came to California in the 1880s to dabble in land and varied pursuits.

He was a citrus grower in Orange County, a banker, a gold miner, and a founder of the staid and conservative Los Angeles Country Club – even though he was also the first socialist party candidate for Congress.

Wilshire, in fact, ran for office here, in New York, in Canada and in England – always as a socialist, and always in defeat. He would literally stand on a soapbox in parks and argue politics – once he even debated a stage actor from his seat in a Broadway theater.

Wilshire also was one of the first billboard moguls in Los Angeles. His signs were widespread and unpopular, and more than once he was hauled before a judge to answer charges that his billboards were a blight on the city's beauty.

Some columnists like the new signage, swooning naively that they make LA somehow more like Manhattan. At least one member of the City Council is upset that there aren't more in his district, arguing that somehow, a digital screen that can be programmed back at the central office represents jobs and capital.

So I have to suspect that the invasion of the digital billboards has just begun. Pretty soon, they'll be everywhere in LA. They'll get bigger, brighter, more ever-present. And the politicians will keep taking the industry's campaign contributions.

Some things in LA never change.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.

Banner image: Clear Channel digital billboard at the corner of Pico and Barrington in Los Angeles, California.