The Los Angeles billboard wars continue

Nothing in life is certain but death, taxes and advertising in previously off-limits public spaces

Constitutionally-protected free speech essential to commerce? Hyper commercialistic eyesores and driving distractions? The Los Angeles billboard wars continue.

For a hot second it looked as though Los Angeles' ban on digital billboards – essentially giant televisions mounted on top and on the sides of buildings – had settled the matter. But a superior court judge struck down the ban as a violation of free speech under the state Constitution in October, kicking the issue back to the City Council. That rarely bodes well for a coherent solution anytime soon.

That said, there are a number of remedies to what critics describe as a blight of giant moving images reminiscent of the dystopian film "Blade Runner," which incidentally was set in an L.A. that seemed to have crashed into Hong Kong during endless rain.

Among the possible solutions now being considered by council members are "sign districts," outside of which digital billboards would be prohibited. However, the idea that seems to have the most traction at this point is to allow a certain square footage of new digital billboards in exchange for the removal of an equivalent, or greater, area of traditional static ones.

David Zahniser reports in The Times: "Clear Channel Outdoor said it favors a takedown formula that allows for new digital billboards. But it has been resisting the effort to scale back the locations where billboards could be permitted. If city officials are interested in eliminating a significant number of older billboards, said company spokeswoman Fiona Hutton, they will need to offer more potential sites for new digital signs."

No one seems to be proposing an outright ban.

Since nothing in life is certain but death, taxes and advertising in increasingly – and annoyingly – previously off-limits public spaces, the future of digital billboards seems assured in Los Angeles. The only question is, how many will there be and how many of the old-fashioned ones will get taken down.

As a cartoonist who likes to consider possible future ramifications for public policy, I can't help wonder about what comes next. America's best minds don't go into the arts or politics; they work for transnational corporations that hire other great minds on Madison Avenue to figure out how to sell us stuff that we didn't even know existed, much less needed. Sooner rather than later, therefore, today's wild and crazy digital billboards will become part of the scenery. Pedestrians, if they still exist, and motorists will learn to ignore them.

There will have to be something new, and that something probably will include holographic projections that tower over the skyline. Ideally – in their thinking -- companies would be able to transmit signals directly into our brains suggesting that we purchase their products. And when that happens, we will go through this process again, taking down ineffectual old digital billboards while issuing the right to fill the skies and clutter our minds.

Follow Ted Rall on Twitter @tedrall

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