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Billboards are changing as you look New digital highway signs are popping up in the area

Buffalo's first digital highway billboards are turning heads on the Niagara Thruway, having overcome concerns about distracting drivers.

Resembling giant plasma TV screens, the 14-by-48-foot signs display still, full-color advertisements: a dazzling array of produce, a towheaded toddler, a row of bright beach houses on sapphire waters. The frames alternate every eight seconds -- a time span strictly regulated by New York State law to minimize driver distraction.

Western New Yorkers have passed the same digital signs for years on Toronto expressways and throughout the country. And though the statute allowing digital roadside advertising in New York State was passed in 2004, it was not until this year that implementation regulations were finalized.

Debate has long surrounded the use of digital advertising featuring changing pictures. It has been called hazardous by many, with critics complaining the ads divert drivers' attention from the road.

Others consider the signs visual pollution. Because of the sensitivity of the issue and potential safety concerns, most states have strict rules governing the technology, according to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America.

Some of the first companies to sign on for the new format -- Cellino and Barnes, Independent Health, Time Warner Cable -- signed contracts five years ago when the new medium was first approved.

"It's kind of bringing Buffalo into the modern world. It's been a long time coming," said Rick Dvorak, vice president and general manager of Lamar Advertising, which owns the billboards.

Similar signs are going up in Rochester and Syracuse, with those in Albany already up and running.

The first two signs in Buffalo are situated at heavy traffic saturation points, just before the Smith Street and Fillmore Avenue exit on the Niagara Thruway northbound and before the Clinton Street and Bailey Avenue exit southbound.

By the middle of next year, another sign should be up on the Niagara Thruway in Niagara Falls and another on the inbound Kensington Expressway. Economic conditions permitting, the company would like to erect others on the Kensington, Route 5 and the 290 before branching out into smaller 12-by-25-foot digital signs on secondary arteries such as Sheridan Drive and Union Road.

"It would be just a small percentage of our total inventory, but enough to give the area full coverage," Dvorak said.

The signs cost $250,000 each and need to be replaced every eight years. But the sizable price tag is covered by a hefty potential for profit. With rates between $3,000 and $3,400 for a four-week run, advertising on a digital billboard can cost more than twice as much as on a traditional poster billboard. In addition, the ever-changing signs can host several advertisers at once, bringing in multiple revenue sources in the same amount of space.

That capacity for easy change also means Lamar can sell ad space for shorter durations, starting with three-day increments -- something that would be impractical in traditional outdoor advertising.

The Louisiana-based company markets those shorter increments to retailers announcing limited-time sales or companies hosting weekend events. It also flaunts its ability to change the sign remotely rather than manually, meaning messages can be updated more easily and tailored as things change.

But for all the interest the newest signs are generating, that doesn't mean traditional poster billboards will start to disappear. In fact, said Dvorak, the company is hoping the new signs will draw renewed attention to the company's traditional sign stock.

"Digital signs will never replace conventional billboards," Dvorak said.

e-mail: schristmann@buffnews.com

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