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The digital video billboard is emerging as a new and potent form of advertising, and as video technology becomes more affordable, local governments consider new questions surrounding the privatization of public space.
“You can imagine how the advertising industry salivates,” explains Gordon Price, Director of the SFU City Program and City Councilor from 1986 to 2002. “One, it’s a light source, and two, you can constantly change it.
“Anything that’s electronic has a very different impact on how people perceive what they’re focused on. If it involves a light source, that, to me, is a definitive difference.”
Video signs were not envisioned when the Sign By-laws were drafted in Vancouver. The current regulations were established twenty to thirty years ago for signs that used lights to identify buildings, or display the time or temperature. City Council has amended regulations on a case-by-case basis for sites such as International Village Mall (known as Tinseltown), Rogers Arena, the Future Shop at Granville and Robson and the CBC Plaza southeast of West Georgia and Hamilton Street. These regulations have limited the size and number of video signs to a scale much smaller than other cities.
Some view the video signs as a welcome and appropriate addition to our historically bright and vibrant spaces. Others, like Stephanie Doerksen, a local urban designer who sits on the Vancouver Public Space Network’s Board of Directors, are concerned by the increase of private content in our public spaces. Doerksen refers to this as ‘ad-creep’:
“I see a number of issues. One of which is the fact that corporate interests are profiting off of public space, which as a public resource, is sort of fundamentally undemocratic. Another aspect is with many forms of advertising, consumers and the public, they have the ability to limit their exposure […] you can’t close your eyes to not see the billboards.”
Doerksen also objects to the concept on aesthetic grounds: “Billboards are pretty ugly,” she says, “sometimes they block views, they detract from architecture, they detract from the streetscape. They make our city and our public spaces less attractive, and less pleasant to be in.”
In approving the Future Shop and CBC video signs, Vancouver City Council required “public benefit” as a condition of implementation. The Future Shop video sign reserves 10% of its air-time for commercial-free cultural programming. The CBC video sign, meanwhile, sets aside 50% for their own programming, 5% of which is reserved for cultural programming, while the remaining 50% is sold to third party advertisers. The content of the cultural programming is overseen by the City’s Cultural Services staff.
With respect to the reserved air-time, Stephanie Doerksen wouldn’t go so far as to call it a positive, but admits: “If there was a digital billboard that was showing 100% community content, that would be an interesting idea to consider. It would still come with some of the negative aspects, detracting from the cityscape and being not so aesthetically pleasing. But if you went with 100% community content and public art it would make it much more palatable.”
Ken Golemba, Senior Manager of Media Operations & Technology at the CBC, explains the CBC’s rationale behind their content: “From our perspective, the advertising is just a necessary evil. We would have put the screen up ourselves for our own purposes, and preferred not to have the advertising on it. But the cost of these things is so high. We have to make everything pay for itself, and try to do it without tapping the tax-payers’ dollars.
“As it gets more expensive, you need a lot of eyeballs, you need a lot of money,” explains Brad Danks, entertainment industry executive and lecturer at the Vancouver Film School. “It’s really allowed the largest corporations to control all facets of the media business. Their position is enhanced by the fact that they’re the only ones who can spend money in the space. Cities have to start looking at the value of the local.”
And Vancouver is in a good position to churn out its own material: “What Vancouver has over so many cities is the full gamut. We have a film industry, we have a television industry, we have a games industry, we have a new media industry,” he explains, “At minimum, we have a deep culture of creating story-form content, which a lot of communities really lack. They don’t have that depth.”
City of Vancouver staff supported the Future Shop and CBC video signs, noting: “There is also the opportunity to apply a portion of the revenue generated by the advertising on the sign towards commissioned video work, curated work by existing cultural venues in the City as well as calls for submission of video work from a variety of sources such as the local arts and film/video schools and other sources.”
Gordon Price feels local governments should be more assertive in leveraging public benefits from the video signs, “You think you have a right to use advertising as a way of extracting value from the public realm. Okay, we’ll play that game. Pay up. You’ve got to have a very tightly constrained and regulated advertising environment, if it’s using the public realm.”
Vancouver’s sign regulations have, thus far, limited the number and size of signs when compared to other cities. New York City’s Times Square is blanketed with video signs and other forms of private advertisements. A little closer to home, Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square currently sports five video signs, one of which has displayed cultural programming.
The question for Vancouver is this: When dealing with concerns like ‘ad-creep’ and the privatization of public space, does the provision of a certain amount of cultural content or achieving other public benefits provide a balance to offset the potential consequences?
According to Kerry Bonnis, whose family owns the Future Shop building with the video signs, the Commodore Ballroom, and a number of retail buildings along Granville Street, the video signs appropriately compliment the neon signage that currently reflects the emergence of Granville as a bustling and significant public space in Vancouver.
“It’s completely fitting that the video screens are particularly on Granville Street with respect to the historical signage that the strip is famous for,” says Bonnis, “This was the street that you came to on the weekends, for promenades, or for entertainment […] this was the number one street. It’s only fitting that it’s come full circle to be back, in this day and age, to what it was.”
As the City strives to create a more vibrant and livable downtown, there are many issues to face. On the matter of video signs, Gordon Price notes, “To just let this happen without any intervention or any judgment of value, that’s, I think, a huge mistake.”
Michael Gordon is the City of Vancouver’s Senior Central Area Planner for the downtown peninsula. William Dunn is a grad student at UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning.