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‘Billboard Wars’ film focuses on digital signs

The project began after a trip to Sauk Centre. “I was flabbergasted by the amount of billboards heading into the town,” said Ossian Or.

Vermont, Maine, Alaska, Hawaii. Those are the four states that ban billboards on their roads. The astute reader will note that Minnesota is not on that list.

Twin Cities filmmakers Ossian Or and Sandra Valle don’t like billboards, as their new documentary, “Chronicle of the Billboard Wars,” makes clear. But their goals are more modest than a general billboard ban – their aim and their film are targeting the digital versions, which have been popping up around the country since 2005.

In addition to being in the documentary business, Or is executive director of Scenic Minnesota, where Valle is a board member. That group, a part of the national Scenic America organization, works against billboards and visual pollution on the country’s roadways. Their film took them to 20 cities in 12 states as they tracked a grassroots movement against the big flashing advertisements.

Germ of an idea

Or said the project began after a trip to Sauk Centre, Minn., for a project on the 90th anniversary of the publication of Sinclair Lewis’ book “Main Street.”

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“I was flabbergasted by the amount of billboards heading into the town,” he said. “It was the most egregious example I’d seen.”

Two events in the east metro – the removal of a billboard for highway reconstruction and neighbors fighting a billboard installation near Highway 52 in South St. Paul – cemented the idea of a documentary in his mind. “From there it was one step after another,” he said.

Cities ranging in size from Seattle to Rapid City, S.D., have debated limits on billboards in the recent past. Most of the time the billboard companies, which include such powerhouses as Clear Channel (now owned by Bain Capital), are able to fight off any restrictions. Since  the price of the technology for digital signs has dropped and the federal government has become more friendly to their use, Or is under no illusion that his is a battle being fought anywhere but uphill.

“We need a new national directive, but I’m not holding my breath on that one,” he said. “But this video is at least an attempt to inform the public.”

‘A beautiful America’

Many folks remember the anti-billboard movement of the 1960s, when Lady Bird Johnson made the national Highway Beautification Act a priority. In announcing the plan, President Lyndon Johnson famously said: “I want to make sure that the America we see from these major highways is a beautiful America.” During GOP attempts to derail the bill in the House, Republican Bob Dole, then a representative from Kansas, offered an amendment to strike “Secretary of Commerce” from wherever it appeared in the bill to be replaced with “Lady Bird,” but he lost on a voice vote.

The bill was passed in 1965, but it has been called at best a partial victory for its advocates. The law required the government to pay for the removal of billboards along federally funded highways, which profited the billboard companies and cost taxpayers millions. Meanwhile, a loophole allowed new billboards to be installed in commercial and industrial areas.

“The Highway Beautification Act was circumvented the day after it was written, basically,” Or said. “It’s basically a dead document because it’s not enforced anywhere.”

An estimated half-million

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story by Ray Ring in High Country News estimated that there are a half-million billboards in the United States and that the industry is worth between $4 billion and $6 billion annually. Companies charge 12 to 17 times more for ads on one of the country’s 2,000 digital billboards than on a regular one.

And the billboards can be money in the bank for financially strapped cities: South St. Paul will receive $50,000 annually for 20 years from Clear Channel for the Highway 52 structure.

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The documentary, 15 months in the making, will premiere at Macalester College at 7 p.m. on April 5 in the John B. Davis Auditorium. Among the guests will be Nikki Laliberte, who championed the opposition to the South St. Paul billboard. Previews of the work can be seen here.