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Buy, buy, billboard.

Buy, buy, billboard

Looking for another sign of media money and politics? Signs are the right place to look. News corporations are key players in the $1.3 billion-a-year billboard industry, rightly known as one of Washington's inside racktes.

The billboard boondoggle began in 1965 when Lady Bird Johnson pushed the Highway Beautification Action through Congress. It was meant to sweep signs from our highways so passersby could see a little purple mountains' majesty, instead of placards welcoming them to Marlboro Country. lbut to ge the bill through, lawmakers essentially had to buy off the billboard companies. Taxpayers were required to pay for moving the signs and to compensate the companies for lost revenues--up to $10,000 of more for each billboard, depending on the circumstances.

The racket works like this: billboard owners move the signs, collect the compensation, and put the signs right back up, on nearby land beyond federal control. In 1983, after almost 20 years of billboard "control," more billboards were going up than coming down, reported the Government Accounting Office. And by 1985, the federal government had already paid about $200 million in subsidies.

Who profits from this system? Media conglomerates sure get their share. With $200 million in revenue last year, Gannett Outdoor is the nation's largest seller of outdoor ads. Hal Brown, a senior vice president of Gannett Outdoor, chairs the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, the industry's Washington lobbying group. Morris Communications has a cut of the action, too. In addition to its 17 newspapers, including the Jacksonville Florida Times- Union, Morris also owns Naegele Outdoor Advertising, which last year sold $52 million in billboard ads. Ackerley Communications, a Seattle-based chain of TV and radio stations, racked up $76 million in billboard sales. Donrey Media Group, owners of the Las Vegas ReviewJournal and more than 60 other small papers, last year counted $9 million in billboard sales.

At least the billboard companies aren't shy about spreading the wealth. A study by the Coalition for Scenic Beauty, an antibillboard lobby, showed that in the past five years the industry has given congressmen $550,000 in speaking fees and hundreds of thousands more in campaign contributions.

But billboard owners choose their candidates carefully. In a 1986 Senate race, Ackerley executives helped defeat Slade Gorton, a crusader for billboard control, with generous donations to his opponent, Brock Adams. Barry Ackerley, the billboard company's president, maxed out with a $2,000 contribution to Adams, with two vice presidents doing the same. Ackerley's wife, Ginger, added $1,000 more. And-surprise! -Adams last year voted against a measure for stricter billboard control.

In 1985, when Quentin Burdick was just another member of the Senate Public Works Committee, the panel that controls billboard legislation, he received only $1,000 from the outdoor advertisers, according to Common Cause Magazine. After becoming chairman in 1987, his popularity grew: Burdick collected $31,400 in campaign contributions from the industry in the first six months of the year. He also made nine trips paid for by billboard companies or trade representatives, including those to Las Vegas, New Orleans, and LoSs Angeles (meals and hotels included). Burdick then played an important role in defeating the plan for stricter billboard control.

The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and Knight-Ridder-none of which own billboard companies-all covered the proposed plan for stricter control. But somehow Gannett, with 134 papers, never got around to it, according to the company's library, Nor did Morris Communications's Washington bureau, according to the flagship paper's library. The bureau serves Morris's 17 papers.

Not that billboards don't get any play in the papers that own them. Gannett's Cincinnati Enquirer took the time to attack a city council plan for billboard control-omitting, as it happened, any mention of Gannett's $200 million billboard revenues. -S. K.
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Author:Kaplan, Sheila
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Dec 1, 1988
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