Even replicants can read up on latest in billboard tech

Headlines sponsored by L.A. Times

It's not as dramatic as the futuristic world imagined in 1982's "Blade Runner" that had Harrison Ford seemingly unable to escape high-tech signage promoting anything that could be advertised, but digital billboards nevertheless have descended on Los Angeles and other big cities.

Today, Clear Channel Outdoor is launching its third network of digital billboards in L.A., and for the first time they'll feature breaking headlines bought and paid for by a major newspaper: the Los Angeles Times.

The billboards still run static photos, as opposed to video, though the images can be changed on the fly, perfect for selecting interesting stories that the Times will want to tout throughout the day accompanied by the suggestion to read all about it in the newspaper or at its Web site.

The Times has purchased space on 10 billboards, or one of three equal-sized "networks" that CCO operates in the L.A. area.

The 10-week campaign will consist of eight-second spots running on the 10 color LED digital displays nearly 71,000 times per week, leaving plenty of spots for CCO to sell to other advertisers on the same network.

CCO even built a unique interface for the Times to make sure that the displays could easily be changed according to the whims of the editorial and marketing departments at the newspaper.

"It's brand new for them, and it's brand new for us," said John O'Loughlin, president of targeted media at Times Media Group.

Well, almost. There was a soft launch around the time of the recent Academy Awards telecast, wherein the Times fed Oscar-related news to the billboards.

O'Loughlin said the results, while difficult to quantify, were encouraging enough with the soft launch to delve deeper. So after the 10-week stint that begins today, the Times will launch another campaign around the time of the Summer Olympics and another one in the weeks leading up to the presidential election.

"This kind of cool technology represents the multimedia nature of our brands," he said.

Although novel for a newspaper, it won't be the first time digital billboards are used to keep the public abreast of current events. In Chicago, for example, authorities are using them in their search for Stacy Peterson, the missing wife of a former police officer whose case has become a staple at cable news outlets. They've also been using digital billboards in their hunt for the killer of five women at a Lane Bryant store in Tinley Park, Ill.

The billboard industry, dominated by such large players as CCO, CBS Outdoor and Lamar Advertising, was nearly stagnant just six years ago but has surged courtesy of digital technology. PricewaterhouseCoopers figures that the industry took in $3.14 billion in the U.S. in 2002 and will grow at an 8.9% clip annually to $6.8 billion in 2011.

Messages that can be changed frequently are the big attraction of digital billboards, perfect for time-sensitive ads like the opening of a movie.

Plus, said PWC, "The newest billboards can provide up to a billion shades of color, creating opportunities for spectacular displays that incorporate animation, moving images and elaborate lighting effects."

"Blade Runner" director Ridley Scott should be proud.