Rocky Start for Astral’s New Digital Billboards

Gail Chiasson, North American Editor

Well, we might be great fans of Astral Media Outdoor’s new 14’ x 48’ digital billboard screens now going up in Montreal, but the company’s plans to put 10 such screens in the Toronto area have gone somewhat awry, at least temporarily.

A group of activists led by Rami Tabello of – who has also been pushing for a new bylaw regulating outdoor signage in the Greater Toronto Area – happened to catch a small comment about spacing from another board within Astral’s application to convert a billboard on Avenue Rd. in North York. It caused the City of Toronto Buildings Department to backtrack on a permit issued to Astral to put a new digital board at one address, as well as to defer the second application.

John Barber, a columnist at The Globe and Mail – an admitted fan of Tabello’s efforts to deter Astral’s plans – took up the cause with an article in the national daily; Tabello got invited to appear on CBC radio; and the whole situation has become something of a brouhaha.

And for all their fuss and furor about the ‘brightness of the signs being a distraction to drivers and to neighbours’, both Tabello and Barber admitted to DailyDOOH that they hadn’t ever seen one of the new Astral boards.

“I’ve seen a picture,” Barber said. “They’re so bright and conspicuous that they can be seen a kilometer away.”

Both made reference to the digital Jumbotron board at the Blu Jays’ baseball stadium and the digital screens in a downtown restaurant and entertainment area generally dubbed Toronto’s ‘Times Square’ –“okay in that area,” says Barber.

“It’s the same technology,” said Tabello, whose organization of 10 or 15 volunteers has been active for about two-and-a-half years as a ‘watchdog of the industry.’

“The City of Toronto has to regulate,” says Tabello. “There are too many illegal signs that don’t conform to bylaws. The bright digital sign Astral wanted to put up is within 15 metres of a residence – and yes, we have heard from the residents.”

Until late Thursday, Astral, whose plans apparently are to put 10 boards in Toronto’s suburban areas and highways, was unavailable to discuss the issue, despite numerous calls to several company executives. Alain Bergeron, vice-president brand management & corporate communications, finally issued a polite “We have no comment at this point.”

The City of Toronto Buildings Department had apparently earlier informed Astral Media that it would grant permits to build LED screens as-of-right (ie. where Astral already had billboards.) But, according to Tabello, the Buildings Department quickly backtracked on an (allegedly) erroneous interpretation of the North York Signs By-law that allowed Astral Media to obtain a permit to erect an LED billboard at Victoria Park near Eglinton. If it stood, the interpretation apparently would have allowed Astral Media to obtain permits, without variances, to convert all of its conforming billboards in North York into LED screens.

According to Barber, Astral has mounted a vigorous lobbying campaign to persuade city councillors to ‘replace old billboards with LED screens to display static commercial messages in appropriate places and provide a tool to the City and Toronto Police Service to communicate with citizens.’ The lobbying of city councillors includes a ‘Show Your Colours’ leaflet (part of a new branding effort by Astral).

We asked Tabello if he’d prefer Toronto to be like Sao Paulo, Brazil, with no outdoor signage. “I wouldn’t go that far,” he said. He is, however, pushing for a bylaw to harmonize the signage laws that differ in the various districts of the GTA following the merger of several cities back in 1998, and to get rid of all ‘illegal’ signs.

Barber sounds more incensed. “The outdoor signage industry is lawless,” he said. It’s members “have abused their power over the laws of the city. They should all be blacked out!”

We’ll be following this situation carefully.

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