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. They’re on Olympic Boulevard in Century City, on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City. They’re even on Fairfax Avenue directly across the street from network rival CBS’s Television City. L.A. is draped in ABC’s corporate logo because the City Council, by a unanimous vote on June 25, gave the okay, a month after the city’s Bureau of Street Services signed and stamped ABC’s permit.
One problem. The banners are illegal. The city’s 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 “America’s 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 city’s $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 ABC’s $46,000.
Echoing Washington’s version of events, Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who in the past has co-sponsored banners for the Dodgers, says, “ABC got lucky. We don’t see the banners in a council motion, and I’ll bet no one knows what they are voting on.” Last Friday, with Goldberg’s 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 don’t 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 ABC’s 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 Murdoch’s 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 network’s 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.
ABC’s 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 didn’t 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.”
ABC’s permit sailed through the city bureaucracy as easily, it seems, as it slid through the City Council. According to a May 17, 1999, memorandum prepared by Gregory L. Scott, director of the Bureau of Street Services, for Rita Walters, “In terms of determining which banners are commercial and therefore prohibited from display on rights of way in the City, it has been the practice of the Bureau of Street Services to forward questionable banner text [copy] to the Office of the City Attorney for a legal opinion where there is any question about commerciality.”
But, says Christopher M. Westhoff, the assistant city attorney whose office is supposed to vet banners, “Nobody has run them by me.” Not ABC’s banners — or anyone else’s, Westhoff says. “But,” he adds, “I daresay they will in future.”
The processing of banners, Westhoff concedes, has been politicized: “Banner requests go through council because they feel they [have] the political leverage for the okay.”
Take those garish Dodgers banners, the ones featuring the lineup of imploding millionaires, for example. In 1996, Councilman Mike Hernandez asked the City Council to allow the Dodgers to hoist their 35th-season-at-Dodgers-Stadium campaign aloft city property — for the entire baseball season, from March to September. Despite the municipal-code ban, and despite the Board of Public Works’ own rules and regulations appearing to limit permits to “events which serve a civic and public interest” and restricting a company name or logo to no more than half the banner, Hernandez was able to convince the council that “it was important to promote the Dodgers. Quite frankly, I was looking at the Dodgers as Los Angeles,” Hernandez explained last week. “When you are promoting an event, you are promoting the city.”
It is exactly that kind of bland, sweeping appeal to civic pride that has allowed the law to be set aside, time and again. In June 1998, for instance, downtown powerhouse attorney Alan Rothenberg’s privately owned sports franchise, Major League Soccer, got 400 banners by persuading the council that MLS would build sports facilities in needy neighborhoods. In October 1998, Universal got 350 banners by attaching the Children’s Defense Fund to its premiere of Babe: Pig in the City. Merely by declaring the 26th Annual Music Awards a “special event,” Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas got Dick Clark Productions 350 banners. At the end of 1998, Staples Center got permission to raise 558 banners and keep them in place throughout most of 1999. In June of this year, the U.S. Tennis Association, “a not-for-profit organization,” got 100 banners for the “Mercedes-Benz Cup.” And so it goes. The Academy Awards got 150, the Grammys 500, the Emmys 600.
And all that ad space, consisting of dozens of thoroughfares festooned with thousands of banners and reaching key
demographics, is free. ABC, which paid $46,000, was the exception (although, by returning ABC’s check, the city, for now, has given the yellow-and-black network its ads gratis). Murdoch’s Dodgers not only pay nothing for their 475 banners, but they can decorate L.A. lampposts for 180 days — three times the duration of a normal permit. At $46 per banner per 60-day permit, the handout to the Dodgers is worth $65,550. According to the Bureau of Street Services’ report to Rita Walters, in fiscal year 1997-1998 the city waived $914,951 in banner fees, while collecting just $45,242 in paid permits. That’s a ratio of 20 to 1 — much of the subsidy flowing to some of the area’s richest businesses.
“Thousands of dollars from the general fund go to finance these companies and their advertisements,” says Rita Walters. “Let them make a cash donation directly to the charity rather than ask us to hang banners with their advertisements.”
Although the city now has its 30-day moratorium, reform has an uncertain future. Walters is pushing the council to adopt new standards, reducing the space devoted to sponsors from 50 percent to 25 percent, and shortening the time banners can be posted to just 30 days. She also wants to eliminate fee waivers. But Jackie Goldberg, who says she “likes the non-commercial policy,” believes that there will continue to be advertisements: “Every city in America fights to have these events, like the Grammys, the Academy Awards, MTV. We see that as naked self interest.”
Whether or not city policy changes, or existing law is enforced, says Howard Furst of AAA Flag & Banner, “every banner we put up is advertising. Nobody would be buying banners if they weren’t thinking it is advertising.”