Bright Lights, Big Battle

New York state bans the use of giant, floating LED billboards on cruising waterways
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Floating billboards off Manhattan are making waters less safe for boaters.

Floating billboards off Manhattan are making waters less safe for boaters.

As of early October, the dockmaster at the West 79th Street Boat Basin in New York City said it had been a while since she last saw one of the giant, flashing LED billboards go by. The same was true at Chelsea Piers on the Hudson River, and at Liberty Landing Marina on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River.

The visual calm on the waterways around Manhattan was a welcome
reprieve to many boaters following action by New York lawmakers in a long-running battle to stop the use of floating digital billboards—the kinds with 1,200-square-foot screens made up of flashing LED lights that turn the waterways into a blinking, neon advertising parade reminiscent of Times Square.

In March, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio announced that the city had filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that the signs created a “public nuisance” and sought penalties of as much as $25,000 per violation, per day involving their use. Then, in August, New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an outright ban on the digital billboards into law, making clear that he agreed with residents and boaters who wanted nature to prevail when it comes to waterway views. That statewide law went into effect immediately.

“These floating billboards are a nuisance that blight our shores and distract from the great natural beauty of our waterways,” Cuomo stated in a press release. “This action will help make our waters more enjoyable and safer for everyone.”

The legislation was co-sponsored by New York state Senator Brad Hoylman, a Democrat from Manhattan who told Soundings that he’d received numerous complaints from residents about visual pollution, and from boaters about safety hazards, when it comes to what he deemed the “floating monstrosities” on the Hudson and East rivers.

“It’s amazing what they can do with digital signs these days,” he said. “It’s like a very large television screen floating down the river right at you. It’s dangerous to boats. Nobody wants to see it. It’s dangerous to drivers. This is a new technology that I think we needed to ensure local municipalities could take action on, so that’s what we did.”

It’s not the first time that the company making the billboards, Ballyhoo Media, has run into legal pushback. In 2017, when the digital screens were appearing on Florida waterways, lawmakers in Miami Beach tried to ban them. They ended up making them off-limits in parts of Biscayne Bay, but the company continued to advertise on other local waterways.

A lot of money is at stake with the technology. While nobody from Ballyhoo Media would respond to multiple requests for comment from Soundings, Ballyhoo CEO Adam Shapiro told the Miami Herald back in March that some 100,000 people a day and another 500,000 a day in New York were seeing the billboards that Ballyhoo uses to commercialize the waterways. Those sizable, metropolitan audiences translate into serious advertising
revenue. Digiday, a trade magazine covering the media and marketing industries, reported that ballpark pricing for a 30-second spot in a two-minute loop on the boats cost $55,000 in New York City and $35,000 in Miami, with a four-week advertising buy.

That kind of cash is the reason why, immediately after New York’s ban went into effect in August, the digital billboards kept appearing out on the water, Hoylman says.

He estimated that Ballyhoo was simply factoring in the newly enacted fines, to be issued by the New York City Police Department, simply as a new cost of doing business.

“The company is still fighting,” Hoylman told Soundings just after the ban went into effect. “They believe the law does not cover them, which is wildly inaccurate. They’re going to be fined for every incident, for every violation, up to $5,000 per violation. It’s up to NYPD to enforce that.”

He also vowed to enact further legislation if the digital billboards continued to appear on the waterways.

“I think it will add up and they will get the picture,” the senator said. “If we have to, we will revisit it at the appropriate juncture if they persist.”

With dockmasters more recently saying they haven’t seen the LED billboards out on the waterways in a while, the message may indeed have gotten through that this type of advertising is unwelcome in New York’s cruising areas.

“This is a win for boaters, for park users, for people who enjoy the solitude of the riverfront, and those who are concerned about safety,” Hoylman says. “I’m glad the governor signed it into law.” 

This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue.