'Television on a Stick' Sparks Admiration, Ire From Sea to Blinking Sea

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San Francisco and Texas, believe it or not, have something in common: a hatred for digital billboards. The cities of Denver, Dallas, Austin, St. Louis, and the states of Montana, Vermont, and Maine have all banned the massive animated screens. Safety experts argue that they distract drivers, and a representative of the group Scenic Missouri derided them in USA Today as "television on a stick."

But is television on a stick really that bad? A description like that sounds like a dream come true for long-haul commuters on straight, empty highways, or those stuck in sprawling gridlock, as these appreciative Florida drivers demonstrate in a YouTube clip.

Digital billboards are good for business, too, according to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, which argues that digital billboards are more lucrative than standard billboards. Digital outdoor versions bring in three to fives times as much revenue as traditional outdoor, according to a 2007 New York Times article. The OAAA says that out-of-home ad revenue dropped 15.6%, to $5.9 billion, in 2009 from the previous year.

Scenic Missouri doesn't agree, if its wordsmiths' online ode to Ogden Nash are any indication: "I think that I shall never see a billboard as lovely as a tree. Indeed, unless the billboards fall, I'll never see a tree at all." People who have the misfortune to live near the flickering signs say the light floods their homes with an unnerving bluish glow.

But while safety advocates worry about distracted drivers, no study has proved that they're dangerous. USA Today says the verdict on digital billboards' safety will return after the Federal Highway Administration completes a study this summer.

As it happens, more cities and states allow digital billboards than don't. "Those cities and states that were in the USA Today chart are the exception, not the rule," says OAAA representative Jeff Golimowski. The naysayers aren't enough to put a crimp on outdoor ad revenue, he says.

But that could be because, while digital billboards are revenue generators for the outdoor industry, they're not that big a piece of the pie. The number of digital billboards is growing, but there are only 1,800 of them in the U.S.: just 0.4% of the nation's 450,000 thousand billboards.
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