Those bumblebee-yellow and black ABC-TV banners advertising Drew Carey, Dharma and Greg, All My Children and The Practice are hanging from lampposts everywhere. Theyre on Olympic Boulevard in Century City, on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City. Theyre even on Fairfax Avenue directly across the street from network rival CBSs Television City. L.A. is draped in ABCs corporate logo because the City Council, by a unanimous vote on June 25, gave the okay, a month after the citys Bureau of Street Services signed and stamped ABCs permit.
One problem. The banners are illegal. The citys municipal code is unequivocal: "No permit shall be issued for, and no person shall install, any street banner of a commercial nature . . . A street banner of a commercial nature is a banner which directs attention to a commodity, product, service, attraction or event, sold, or offered for sale . . . by a commercial enterprise, or which in any way promotes a commercial enterprise or its products."
So why are 1,000 window-shade billboards, touting the fall lineup of "Americas Broadcasting Network," hanging from city light poles? Why are all those televisages gazing down on motorists?
The simple answer, the one Public Works officials and City Council members have been peddling since a scandal broke late last week concerning the use of public property for commercial advertising, is, as Public Works spokesman Richard Lee puts it, "We screwed up." The ABC banners are a one-time mistake, a failure of "oversight on the text of the banners," according to James Washington, who heads the Street Use Inspection Division, which issued ABC its permit and collected the citys $46,000 fee. Washington says the banners will be removed "in the very near future," and in keeping with the "we goofed" theme, the city has returned ABCs $46,000.
Echoing Washingtons version of events, Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who in the past has co-sponsored banners for the Dodgers, says, "ABC got lucky. We dont see the banners in a council motion, and Ill bet no one knows what they are voting on." Last Friday, with Goldbergs support, the council adopted a 30-day moratorium on the installation of new banners while the city reviews its current policy.
But Council Member Rita Walters, who has spent the last six years trying to reduce commercials in street banners, says, "Somebody [at Public Works] blew that one, and they blew it big, and they they know it. We had this lengthy discussion [recently] in committee, and we specifically talked about companies that have a tendency to take advantage of commercial content. I dont think that ABC just happened."
ABC, meanwhile, is fighting to keep its 24-square-foot vinyl banners up. "We are in discussions with the city right now," says ABC spokesman Kevin Brockman. "Obviously, the banners are part of our overall campaign to raise awareness, and they are very effective." Sources familiar with the talks say that, as yet, the city has issued no written order rescinding ABCs permit, and that for now the banners will stay.
And ABC can make a strong case for keeping them up. A Weekly review of City Counsel and Public Works records reveals that for the past several years, the city has routinely approved permits for banners that promote commercial enterprises. Besides media mogul Rupert Murdochs Dodgers whose ubiquitous banners include mini-advertisements for Murdoch-owned XTRA radio and Pacific Bell and his Fox Sports West 2, this year alone the city has allowed banners advertising the Acura Tennis Classic, the MTV Movie Awards, Clippers basketball, the Staples Center, and the Cybernet Worldfest, a big-top bash to be held later this month in Westwood and designed to promote such Internet franchises as Yahoo!, GoTo.Com and Earthlink (all actively traded stocks on NASDAQ). Last year it was Cabaret, featuring a racy shot of Teri Hatcher, and the Universal Studios release Babe: Pig in the City, among other private pitches, that got special dispensation.
Worse, the council has routinely granted similar for-profit endeavors and corporate-sponsored events fee waivers, worth nearly $1 million in fiscal year 1997-1998 alone. Hundreds of thousands of dollars more in waivers have been allowed this year, with scant scrutiny for commercial content. Little wonder, then, that "banners, dollar for dollar, are the cheapest, most effective advertising you can have," according to Howard Furst, whose company, AAA Flag & Banner, was paid more than $100,000 by ABC to print and install the networks ad campaign. By comparison, billboards in desirable spots on the Westside run $7,000 to $12,000 a month, and on the Sunset Strip cost roughly $30,000 a month.
ABCs banners are only the most recent and extreme example of a city policy Walters says "is out of control." Companies appeal to what Walters calls "those faint-hearted City Council members," and a permit is issued. Indeed, council president John Ferraromotion extending ABC its permit didnt even try to mask the obvious hucksterism. "ABC Television," Ferraro informed his colleagues, "will be promoting their new television season during the months of July, August and September 1999. As part of the pre-season publicity . . . banners will be displayed at various locations."