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For Billboard Owners, Threat of Legal Challenge Presents Opportunity
American Statesman
By Nolan Hicks
February 9, 2017

City of Austin might weigh new rules on digital billboards.

Recent court rulings will likely affect the city's efforts to revise its billboard rules as part of CodeNext.

Eight sections deep in the city's vast 1,100-plus-page draft rewrite of its land use rules sits a footnote that portends a possible legal challenge to come.

But, as an example of just how far-reaching CodeNext is, the warning deals not with sort of buildings Austin might allow, but the types of signs that could be placed on or near them.

Recent court rulings, including one from the U.S. Supreme Court, will likely affect the city's efforts to revise its billboard and sign rules as part of CodeNext, the city's staff warns in the footnote. For major billboard owners, the legal uncertainty presents an opportunity to push something they've always wanted: digital signs.

"If they do nothing at all, and risk having the city's sign code stricken because of a court challenge, then it's the Wild West," said Russ Horton, the attorney who represents a coalition of billboard owners, local businesses and public safety unions known as Sign On Austin. "What we want to do is avoid a Las Vegas or Times Square-type situation. The city needs to pull its head out of the sand and do something about it."

In 2015, the Supreme Court struck down a small Arizona town's sign regulations, finding they inappropriately regulated their content. The next year, the Texas 3rd Court of Appeals struck down much of the state's highway beautification act, finding it inappropriately regulated political speech.

Horton's group argues it's only a matter of time until a legal challenge appears taking the argument one step further: That differing regulations between "on-premises" and "off-premises" signs are unconstitutional as well.
For instance, while businesses are free to put up digital billboards on their building or land, owners of "off-premises" billboards advertising businesses located elsewhere cannot.

The solution pushed by Horton's group: A series of changes to the city's sign regulations that would unify the rules for on-premise and off-premise signs, which would allow sign owners to replace vinyl, static billboards with digital ones.

That's a non-starter for highway beautification group Scenic Texas.

"Communities don't want these signs in their community, period," said Margaret Lloyd, vice president of Scenic Texas' board of directors. "That's what I get concerned about, when I see an industry coming in and trying to leverage a process to their advantage so that the issue can't be honestly discussed, separate from creating this atmosphere of fear."

Horton's group met with opponents and Mayor Steve Adler late last year in an attempt to resolve their differences, he said. A promised meeting for early this year has yet to take place, he added
"The mayor is facilitating a conversation with some of the stakeholders because a resolution is needed on this issue," said Adler spokesman Jason Stanford.

City spokeswoman Alina Carnahan described the sign regulations in the currently released CodeNext draft as a placeholder. The city, she said, will roll out its new proposal, which is undergoing legal review, this spring.

The crux of Horton's argument centers around the 3rd Court of Appeals ruling last August, which struck down key sections of the 1972 Texas Highway Beautification Act.

That case stemmed from a legal challenge brought by the owner of a Planet K shop, who argued the state rules limiting when political signs could be posted along a freeway in Bee Cave improperly limited his First Amendment rights.

The appellate court ruled that the state's limits on outdoor advertising cannot be enforced because the law improperly regulated billboards and signs based on what they say. That ruling, which has been appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, didn't directly apply to city or county rules governing billboards.

The Texas appellate court's ruling relied on the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, which found the Arizona town's sign ordinance placed improper restrictions on signs being used by a church to inform the public about the time and location of its services.

However, Scenic Texas argues that a challenge against Austin's rules wouldn't naturally line up with the existing case law.

And in a concurring opinion to that 2015 Supreme Court ruling, three justices agreed that "(r)ules distinguishing between on-premises and off-premises signs" were acceptable.

"They said, basically, a ban on digital, off-premise, commercial speech is very different from a regulation of on-premise's noncommercial speech and it's perfectly OK" under a previous ruling, Lloyd said. "As long as city codes don't try to regulate noncommercial speech on private property, then they can regulate the rest."

However, Horton pointed out that a separate concurring opinion from that Supreme Court decision warned the ruling could be more expansive than intended. Additionally, he pointed to the 3rd Court's decision to strike down most of the Texas Department of Transportation's authority to regulate billboards, even though the case stemmed from a political sign.

"Local sign codes, in cities and towns, essentially have been modeled after the Highway Beautification Act for the last 30 years," Horton said. "That's the problem."
Billboard Insider
By Eric LaGattuta
February 13, 2017
Cruising down the highway on the way to work, running errands while the kids are at school, or maybe a family road trip across the country; thousands of drivers a day pass by the advertisement you purchased on a prime location billboard in the hopes of boosting your revenue, but how many of them actually notice and absorb your message? What is the difference between the billboard your ad is on from the next one, and the next one? Now upcoming on the horizon is the new LED billboard freshly installed, bright, eye-catching. The driver can't help but read its rotating messages as they drive past, first about the local ER, next a Cajun restaurant advertising a delicious looking signature dish just off the next exit, without realizing it the driver absorbed 2 messages in the 20 second window the LED board was in view.

However, your static message went unnoticed!

The length of digital billboard ads is a standard 8 seconds before the message changes and is part of a 64 second loop. Although you share the screen with other companies (Which is no different from running a TV, radio, or any other ad on a shared medium), travelers may see your ad multiple times during high traffic hours, and the billboard can be seen from a much longer distance. Due to the constant changing of the ads, driver's eyes are automatically drawn to the motion and color so your ad is seen and absorbed more effectively than if it were on a static billboard in the same spot.

Another huge advantage of LED billboards is the appearance factor. With traditional billboards your ad would fade, peel, become dirty, or change color over time as it is exposed to the sun and other weather elements. The typical LED bulb last 100,000 hours or more, which translates to 11 years or more, so apart from a complete power outage the chances of your ad suffering from any rundown appearance is slim to none.
A massive advantage LED billboards have over the traditional static option is the ability to quickly change messages to reflect new marketing strategies, promotions, or pricing. Whereas in the past you would have to submit an order from the print shop, wait for the print to be fabricated, then schedule someone to go install the new print; now all that is needed for an ad to be updated/changed is a final digital proof emailed to whoever operates the billboard, which in turn can be instantly uploaded! Your company is even able to purchase more than one ad in the 64 second loop in order to broadcast multiple messages simultaneously as well as reach even more of your target audience as they drive by!
The biggest objection people have when it comes to the decision making process between purchasing an LED billboard ad or a traditional static billboard ad is the upfront cost. While it is true that the upfront cost of the ad purchased on an LED display is higher than that of a static billboard ad, the return on investment is much higher with the LED ad. An Arbitron Digital Billboard study found that almost one in five people discussed an ad they had seen on digital billboards with other people, and they also found the LED billboards to be more appealing to look at.  Also when comparing the cost of advertising on a billboard to other advertising mediums, besides an on premise sign at the location of your business, billboard advertising is by far the cheapest option available!

To further illustrate the effectiveness of billboard advertising in general, from the Arbitron Out-Of-Home Advertising Report published in 2013, 39% of adults who have viewed a billboard have visited a store they saw advertised, 40% visited a restaurant. 29% of viewers have been motivated to visit a store within a week after seeing a sale or special (which emphasizes the advantage of being able to update or change the message advertised on a digital billboard). Every business has a goal of using all forms of their advertising as a "drive to action", with this in mind 40% of billboard viewers have watched a television program after seeing it advertised, 23% have tuned in to a radio station, 18% called a phone number for an advertised product/service, and 33% attended a public event or performance that was being advertised on a billboard. 40% of viewers noticed an ad that provided specific directions to a specific store, business, or restaurant location, and 26% have immediately visited those locations specifically because they saw the billboard ad!

There is a plethora of data available showing the effectiveness of billboard advertising, and as technology keeps improving and changing, the advantages of LED Digital advertising over the traditional static printed billboards keep increasing. Whether your business chooses LED or traditional, you are making a smart choice in how you spend your advertising money and how you implement your marketing strategy. However, the brighter, bolder, more colorful, and better engaging your message the more the viewers remember you!

Building Impressions: EMCs Change the Signage Landscape
Sign and Digital Graphics
By Scott Franko
February 13, 2017
The LED has certainly become a major component for lighting, signage and display. I've watched it happen over my 25 years in the business of providing brand and image solutions. Many of those solutions involve digital displays. There are many forms of these visual displays including the electronic message center, or EMC. There are also numerous manufactures of these EMC displays that supply and serve the sign industry. Among them are Watchfire, Optec, and Lightking Outdoor.

Watchfire, formally Time-O-Matic, got its start in 1932. Through the years they went from making control systems for chaser lights that went in theatre marquee signs to making the first time and temperature signs to now manufacturing a wide range of EMC signs. Optec began making their displays in 1985 and installed the world's first full color RGB LED display in Washington state 20 years ago. Lightking Outdoor was founded in 1967 providing LED signs and billboards. With a focus on technology they continue to improve EMC signs with LEDs including their patent pending series of billboard displays.

Through a joint Q&A session these industry experts provide their insight and expertise about how the LED and EMC are building impressions today and in the future. Respondents include Watchfire's David Wuellner, sales director; and Chris White, sales. Optec's responses are from Caryn Melton, PR representative; Evan Sands, marketing; and Johnathan Floyd, sales. And Lightking Outdoor's responses are from Timur Colak, president; Javier Oberti, VP of marketing; and Tommy Bogard, VP of sales.

 How has the EMC digital display evolved or changed for the better?

 Watchfire: Resolutions have gotten tighter, frame rates have gotten faster, signs are brighter and better than ever. The earliest EMCs were low-resolution light bulb units that could project words only. With the emergence of newer LED technology, the ability to project not only words, but pictures, animations, video clips and other messages are easily achieved.

Engineers have worked over the years to perfect the art of placing electronics outdoors. With the huge temperature swings seen in many climates, varying humidity levels, and salt air along the coasts, EMCs have had to be manufactured to withstand whatever mother nature can throw at it.

Along with their construction, the demands of the marketplace brought about many changes in the means of communicating with EMCs. The communication evolution has gone from hard wired to fiber-optic, radio, and cellular 4G communication that puts the sign on the internet with its own IP or MAC address.

Optec: LEDs and LED display technology has experienced unprecedented advances over the past 30 years. Like computers and consumer electronics, LED display technology continues to push toward lighter, thinner, brighter, higher resolution, more energy efficient, reliable network connectivity and greater design flexibility. The industry has gone from single color, character-only displays to large-scale, high-resolution, full color, spectacular displays.
Lightking Outdoor: Everything has changed, right down to the term EMC. The industry standard is now closer to an outdoor TV. LED signs have gone from single to three and now to trillions of colors. The pixel pitch, or tightness of LED clusters per module that makes up a display's resolution has also evolved greatly over the years.
How do EMC digital displays play a role with branding and building impressions?

 Watchfire: An LED EMC sign is one of the most effective forms of adverting available today. The cost of each impression is much less than TV, radio and yellow pages. EMCs have gotten better and better resolution over the past few years. This evolution has made it possible to specify an EMC for basically any viewing distance, thus maximizing the value for the end user by making the sign readable in any application.

 Optec: In recent industry research, a remarkable 63 percent of people actually notice LED EMC displays. LED displays play a vital role in increasing end-user visibility and impression. Attention-grabbing messages that target a driver or shopper have an impact and pull customers into the venue. Optec's content creation and management teams work with our clients to maximize their display visuals and goals.

 What are some new things to be aware of with EMC manufacturing, uses of the EMC in the market, and with the software or with cloud technology?

Software has gotten better and better over the years, and it has also gone from the PC to the cloud like so many other things. Cloud software reduces the cost of installation and takes the handcuffs off the end user with respect to their host computer. EMC signs can now be controlled from almost any device like a laptop, a tablet, or even a smart phone. Internet-connected signs can be diagnosed by the manufacturer's tech support team to aid in problem resolution. This reduces costs for the end user as well as the installing and servicing sign company.  
Lightking Outdoor: The cloud is already being used to control networks of LED signs and especially billboards. We offer both cloud solutions and wireless bridge solutions depending on whether the customer is controlling a network or just one sign.

Can you share an example of an EMC sign that incorporates one of your EMC digital displays that builds impressions?

Watchfire: The owner of Northcrest Shopping Center wanted to upgrade his aging plaza and project his center as being cutting edge and ahead of the curve for strip centers. Watchfire produced a 20' x 16' message center to completely replace the tenant panel portion of his tall pylon sign.

Sweetwater Sound is located in a place along a highway that serves well as a gateway to the city where they are located. Being very community oriented, the owner built a massive sign that incorporated a 15' x 27' high-resolution message center. It serves to advertise his business as well as to welcome visitors their city.

The Lebowsky Center is a historic theater that replaced their outdated and ineffective manual marquee sign with a Watchfire message center.

 Optec: Optec has installed over 100,000 custom LED displays in a wide range of indoor and outdoor applications, such as restaurant and retail, entertainment, hospitality and casino, billboard and marquee, education and government, and worship.

A project we were involved with that is truly a one of a kind sign was for Big Storm Brewing Company. To visually brand their new facility, the founder and principals wanted signage that was as outstanding as their craft beverage products. They worked closely with a local sign and awning company.

The cabinet, resembling a lighthouse, is round aluminum with a base width of 8' tapering to 4' and an overall height of 25', which required special zoning approval. The EMC part of the sign is a 5' x 10' double-faced electronic 10MM RGB display with full-motion video board.

With two Elliott cranes on site, workers were able to lift and set the lighthouse all in one day. Optec Displays pre-programmed the EMC so everything was ready simultaneously. Additionally, Optec trained the company's workers on the EMC and also assisted in developing compelling messages to attract customers. Big Storm was amazed at the speed at which the sign was erected and ready to start promoting the grand opening.

Today the lighthouse sign is so popular that customers take pictures while standing in front of it.
Lightking Outdoor: The Miccosukee Resort and Casino in Miami, the World Congress Center in Atlanta, and the Salty Sues in Panama City, Florida.

In terms of branding and impressions, the Miccosukee sign offers a great example of how the tribe has refreshed its brand with crisp logos and a bright beautiful sign while driving revenue through more traffic into its casino, golf course and Indian Village by advertising passersby incentives to visit while providing information they didn't know such as $30 free credit, 24 hour bingo and poker, alligator wrestling 19 miles west of the casino, and concerts and festivals such as one with Pitbull and Marc Anthony.

All told, within a few months of us installing their three-sided 17' x 35' LED EMC display sign, they have a stronger brand and more revenue. One well-done, well-placed LED sign has made a world of difference.
What do you see in the future for the LED or EMC sign?
Watchfire: The future can bring anything. Just look at our hand-held computers. What is for certain is that resolutions will continue to get better, quality will continue to improve, costs will come down like they have for the entire history of our industry. Imagine an entire storefront in the future being all LED as an alternative to channel letters.

I see the merging of a lot of separate industries and skill sets into a new breed of company that does more than just builds signs when it comes to branding. Companies will emerge that will work on every aspect of branding down to the look, design, color, placement, architecture, signage, communication and evolution.
Lightking Outdoor: The 400,000 highway billboards in the U.S. will go from 2% to mostly digital during our lifetimes. They have to do this in order for the out of home business to survive in the digital age. This transformation to digital out of home will allow billboards with beacons to communicate ads directed at the average profile of drivers passing in front of the sign using information from their smart phones to decipher their demographics and profiles.

Similarly, cities and counties will slowly relent and allow more LED signs since programmable advertising by time of day and target market will become essential for retailers to compete in the digital age. Static signs will be replaced, first on monument and pylon signs, code permitting, then on storefronts.

These outdoor LED EMCs will then be integrated with indoor LED and LCD screens into a full digital retail solution that micro-targets each individual with the right product/service at the right time.