Credit: Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times

“All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare wrote, 400 years ago. Now it’s more like all the world’s a screen.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago City Digital Network billboard deal, the latest step in our lurch into an alternate, electronic universe, clears the way for a major assault on that last bastion of reality: the landscape. The screens—with hypnotically morphing images, bigger than life, brighter than day, and so compelling that you can’t not look at them—will soon be looming over our highways. TV on a stick, their critics call them. Trash in the sky.

And while the plan for one megascreen in Wrigley Field was the subject of hot public debate, and a rash of smaller digital screens on private property inspired the City Council to slap a nine-month moratorium on them (it’ll expire next April), the invasion of 34 of these driver distractions, marring the views of Chicago’s skyline and standing on city property, has barely caused a peep.

Except, that is, from the handful of aldermen who tried to stop it. Second Ward alderman Robert Fioretti was among them: “Our skyline is majestic, unparalleled,” Fioretti says. “Do we really want to ruin it? The advertising industry steamrolled over the city negotiators on this. They got everything they wanted.”

As they pretty much have since the first attempts to regulate billboard advertising, during the Lyndon Johnson administration.

What obesity is to Michelle Obama, billboards were to Lady Bird. They had mushroomed around the interstate highways that had begun to be built in the 1950s, blighting bucolic views, and she got LBJ to push for a law that was supposed to clear them away. That law, the Highway Beautification Act, was passed in 1965. Unfortunately, says Max Ashburn, spokesman for the D.C.-based nonprofit Scenic America, under pressure from an outdoor advertising lobby powerful then and now, the HBA has been so watered down it’s more like the Billboard Protection Act.

There are two main problems with the HBA, Ashburn says. It allows billboards in “commercial and industrial areas” (often very loosely defined), which is why there’s a forest of them, for example, on sections of I-294 and on the Stevenson. It also requires compensation to billboard owners for equipment and lost revenues on any signs the government wants to take down. That’s made it too expensive for most local governments to get rid of billboards once they go up. States that fail to comply get a cut in their federal highway funds.

So the HBA was relatively ineffective, Ashburn says, except for one safety-inspired prohibition, written into most of the state-federal agreements required by the act, that forbade “intermittent, flashing, or moving lights.” Since billboard ads were made of paper glued to board, nobody cared much about that. Until the digital revolution.

Light-emitting diodes (LEDs), the technology behind most digital billboards, were invented half a century ago but weren’t adapted for billboards until relatively recently. In spite of high initial costs (about $250,000 for the big ones), these computer-controlled light boards offered clear advantages: they eliminate printing and labor-intensive application, and are brighter and more animated than anything else in the visual field. Measured in units called “nits,” they literally outshine the sun, creating impact that can command a higher rental dollar. And here’s the attribute that really had the industry salivating: they can be changed repeatedly, in a flash, so the same sign can be rented to numerous advertisers simultaneously.

The only thing standing in the way of these industry game changers was the HBA stipulation against intermittent, flashing, or moving lights. LEDs had historically been understood to fall into that category.

“Chicago is becoming the Silicon Valley of digital outdoor media.”
—Jean-Francois Decaux, co-CEO of JCDecaux, one of two firms to land a no-bid contract in the city’s digital billboard deal

In September 2007, however, something surprising happened: The Federal Highway Administration decided that signs flashing a new image as often as every four seconds are not “intermittent” after all, and promptly issued a memorandum reversing the government’s position. The new dictum asserted that “changeable electronic variable message signs . . . do not violate a prohibition against ‘intermittent’ or ‘flashing’ or ‘moving’ lights.”

There were about 500 digital billboards along the nation’s highways in 2006; there are more than 4,000 now. And this is only the beginning. Like every other print industry, outdoor advertising sees its future as digital.

There have been objections—from NIMBYs (home values have been proven to drop when an LED comes to the neighborhood), dark-sky advocates, conservationists worried about the amount of energy it takes to make these signs visible in daylight, and people concerned about highway safety.

The billboard companies claim the signs are no more dangerous than anything else, but California-based consultant Jerry Wachtel, who’s reviewed digital billboard safety research for the likes of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, says studies frequently quoted by the industry are either flawed or misinterpreted, while the rest of the research confirms the obvious (and the very attribute the billboard companies are promoting to their customers): Digital signs are more distracting than traditional billboards.

Wachtel says drivers aren’t likely to admit that their eyes were locked on a flashy billboard when they crashed, but studies show that “if the signs take the driver’s eyes off the road for two seconds or longer, the risk of a crash goes way up,” especially in high-traffic environments like Chicago.

And, says Wachtel, many studies have proven that digital billboards are taking drivers’ eyes off the road for that period or longer.

Still, he says, they’re here to stay. He thinks they can be “placed and operated in a way that minimizes the safety issues.” That means not putting them right next to the highway, toning them down at night “so that they’re not any brighter than conventional signs, and extending the message-change interval.”

Second Ward alderman Robert Fioretti was among the handful of aldermen who tried to stop the mayor's digital billboard deal. "Our skyline is majestic, unparalleled," he says.
Second Ward alderman Robert Fioretti was among the handful of aldermen who tried to stop the mayor’s digital billboard deal. “Our skyline is majestic, unparalleled,” he says.Credit: Jean Lachat/Sun-Times

But the Chicago deal’s most pervasive effect is likely to be the degradation of the landscape, as bemoaned by Fioretti. Chicago architect Peter J. Kindel, chair of the AIA Chicago Urban Design Knowledge Committee, says, “Billboards have significant impact, but digital billboards are really upping the ante. I understand the city needs money, but what’s the price? It should at least be debated thoroughly, and not just on economics, but also on aesthetics.”

As Mick Dumke reported on the Reader‘s blog last December, the 20-year no-bid contract with a joint venture made up of two firms that know their way around City Hall—Interstate (a contributor to Emanuel’s campaign fund) and JCDecaux (which has the city’s bus shelter contract)—got five hours of testimony before a council committee whose members admitted that they didn’t get it but recommended the contract to the City Council anyway. A week later it sailed through the council, 43 to 6.

In fact, the first year’s proceeds from digital billboards ($15 million) were in the city budget that the council had already approved. Mayor Emanuel said the deal will guarantee the city $155 million over 20 years (he didn’t mention that the city will be footing all bills for construction), and will serve as an emergency broadcast system. JCDecaux issued a press release pegging expected revenue at $700 million, and co-CEO Jean-Francois Decaux proclaimed that “Chicago is becoming the Silicon Valley of digital outdoor media.”

After that, Emanuel needed the state legislature to revise its highway regulation law to exclude the city network from restrictions laid out by the HBA that would, among other things, prevent the signs from going up so close to the roadway. The legislature obliged, and Governor Pat Quinn signed off on it last month.

So the new signs could be popping up any day now, mostly along the Kennedy, the Stevenson, the Eisenhower, and the Dan Ryan. The only current obstacle is a lawsuit Scenic America filed against the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration for failing to follow procedures when the FHA issued the 2007 about-face memorandum.

Scenic America’s attorney, Thomas Gremillion of the Institute for Public Representation at the Georgetown University Law Center, says if they prevail on all their claims, it’s possible that LED billboards on highways “would have to come down, or at least become static” in order for states to protect their federal funding.

Which could make them pretty expensive single-advertiser signs.

The Scenic America suit was filed in January, and doesn’t seem to have been causing any sleepless nights for Emanuel or Interstate-JCDecaux. But the amended Illinois law carries this caveat: “The changes made to the Act . . . shall not be applicable if the application would impact the receipt, use, or reimbursement of federal funds by the Illinois Department of Transportation.”

Correction: This article has been amended to correctly reflect that Robert Fioretti is the Second Ward alderman.