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Digital billboards to debut in city

Digital billboards - which rotate through several static advertisements each minute - will make their debut in the Philadelphia area this week.

Digital billboards - which rotate through several static advertisements each minute - will make their debut in the Philadelphia area this week.

Already the high-tech signs have critics.

Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings has installed four of the computer-controlled billboards in the city and four in the surrounding counties. Advocates say the boards benefit advertisers, allowing them to easily change their messages - touting a sale one day and a new product the next.

"I think the biggest appeal for advertisers is the immediacy," said George Kauker, president of the Philadelphia Division of Clear Channel Outdoor. "It gives the advertiser more flexibility."

Kauker said that for the first five or six weeks in operation, the boards will exclusively air safety and public service messages before switching to a mix of commercial and public ads.

But some locals don't want this new technology descending upon Philly.

"In my view, this isn't just an update to an existing sign, this is a whole new kind of outdoor advertising." said Mary Tracy, executive director of the Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight.

Tracy said distracting digital signs could contribute to traffic accidents. She also questioned whether the billboards were even permitted under the city zoning code, which doesn't explicitly deal with electronic signs.

Licenses and Inspections Commissioner Robert Solvibile said the boards are in legal locations because they are replacing older billboards. And he said the city has determined that the zoning code allows these types of electronic signs.

"These don't flash every two seconds," he said. "It's not flashing like neon signs."

On road safety, Kauker cited a study commissioned by the Foundation for Outdoor Advertising Research and Education that showed digital billboards had no impact on drivers.

"The technology was found to be absolutely neutral when it comes to accidents," he said.

But Tracy said that that foundation was a pro-billboard group and the study was not definitive.

"It's like the tobacco industry telling you cigarettes are safe," she said.

Kauker and Solvibile said the easily changing boards would be useful in emergency situations like broadcasting Amber Alerts.

But Tracy said that was not a good enough reason for the billboards.

"If there's an Amber Alert, there are many ways to get the message across other than this billboard on the side of the road," she said.

Regardless of any concerns, Kauker said the billboards should all be up and running within a week.

Kauker declined to detail how much it would cost to run an advertisement on a digital billboard. He also would not say if the city was paying for the public service advertisements.

The high-tech new boards are probably setting Clear Channel back quite a bit. According to a recent Washington Post article, the 3,000- to 4,000-pound boards - the same size as their more understated predecessors - cost about $450,000.

Digital billboards still make up a tiny percentage of billboards nationally. yesterday reported that Clear Channel had about 125,000 traditional billboards across the country and expects to have 140 to 150 digital boards by the end of the year. *