ST. PETERSBURG — Supporters call them an exciting new advertising medium that can use innovative technology to save lives and catch criminals.
Critics say they are "televisions on sticks" that distract motorists and disturb neighborhoods with bright flashing lights.
Digital billboards represent a leap in outdoor advertising that promises the industry a steep climb in profits — and headaches for governments trying to regulate them.
How bright can they be? How are brightness levels enforced? How fast should the images be allowed to change? How many traditional billboards should come down to make way for the new signs?
Those questions have preoccupied St. Petersburg city attorneys since 2009.
After months of negotiating with Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor, the City Council was on the verge last year of approving a deal to allow digital billboards in exchange for the removal of a greater number of traditional signs. Digital billboards already are up in Hillsborough County, Tampa, Pinellas Park and South Pasadena.
But since the end of November, St. Petersburg officials have waited as the two companies have been mostly mum about what they plan to do next.
Same with Pinellas County, where the billboard industry asked to extend a yearlong moratorium ending Jan. 17 until mid May, after the state legislative session.
The delays have some wondering if the industry will seek statewide rules that will negate attempts by local governments to regulate the new signs.
"The fact that the billboard companies didn't object to the moratorium extension says to me that they have another plan in place," said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch. "My feeling is that they would get a favorable ruling from Gov. Rick Scott's administration, considering that they are so antiregulation."
Mark Winn, St. Petersburg's chief assistant city attorney, said he had heard similar rumblings.
It wouldn't be the first time billboard companies have tried to blunt local oversight, said Bill Brinton, an attorney for Scenic Jacksonville who is also helping Pinellas County with its rules.
In 2002, the Legislature passed a bill requiring local governments to reimburse companies for the future profits of any sign that was removed. In 2006, state lawmakers passed a bill that allowed billboard companies to remove trees within 500 feet so they wouldn't block the signs.
"The billboard industry is one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the United States," Brinton said. "And it's in the state legislatures where they are the most powerful. That is their pattern, to override local control."
There are no plans for such an override, said April Salter, a spokeswoman for the Florida Outdoor Advertising Association, which represents CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel Outdoor.
"I can tell you with certainty that we aren't doing anything with digitals," Salter said. "There's no proposed bill that has anything to do with proposed billboards."
The delays in St. Petersburg and Pinellas are related only to technical issues, said Todd Pressman, a local lobbyist for the companies, and Tom O'Neill, Clear Channel Outdoor's vice president of real estate and public affairs.
"We haven't backed off," Pressman said, adding that he expects St. Petersburg leaders to vote on the deal in a few months.
Pinellas County commissioners are set to vote on a draft ordinance in April that will allow a 15-second interval between images, more frequent than the current 60-second limit. Digital billboard critics say a more frequent change in images, while ramping up profits for billboard companies, makes the signs more distracting, and unsafe, for motorists, a claim the industry disputes.
The Pinellas plan would remove eight existing static billboards for each digital sign. The proposal in St. Petersburg would remove 10 traditional billboards per digital board and allow for message intervals of 10 seconds.
CBS Outdoor, which owns 24 billboards in the city, would remove 10 billboards and erect one digital sign. Clear Channel would remove 80 of its 132 billboards in the city and put up eight digital signs.
In CBS' case with St. Petersburg, the sticking point came when the city asked for space on the boards for public service announcements.
Winn said CBS doesn't want to commit space. Its attorney offered to provide a digital billboard on city property, but the city declined, said Erica Smith, an assistant city attorney.
"The city's not looking to add one more gratuitous billboard to the scenery," Smith said.
Clear Channel doesn't mind dedicating space to public service announcements, which the industry likes to stress as a benefit it provides the community. Last year, the face of Dontae Morris was featured on digital billboards throughout the state after he was accused of killing two Tampa police officers. Although the boards didn't directly lead to his capture, Tampa's City Council thanked Clear Channel for its help. Billboards also can display the faces of missing children.
Clear Channel is haggling over how to measure the brightness of the boards, Winn said, a technical issue that doesn't represent a major impasse.
Still, the delay has led to speculation.
"Color me cynical, but the history of the industry is that they are not always forthcoming with their strategies," said Travis Jarman, a representative with the Council of Neighborhood Associations in St. Petersburg. "My guess is that the billboard industry will try to do an end run."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or [email protected]