New York|Hate Those Floating Digital Billboards? New York Just Banned Them

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed legislation to outlaw the ads that “blight our shores.” But you may not have seen the last of them.


CreditCreditGary Hershorn/Getty Images

Jesse McKinley

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Depending on your point of view, they are either miracles of modern marketing or a heinous eyesore on the city’s waterways.

Either way, the digital billboards that had been plowing the East and Hudson Rivers over the last several months may soon be a thing of the past, as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed legislation on Monday to ban them.

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

The governor’s action on the bill, which will be effective immediately, comes after months of complaints and legal action over the billboards, which first appeared last year and irritated the sensibilities of some New Yorkers.

But even as the governor and state lawmakers claimed victory, the company responsible for the billboards, Ballyhoo Media, remained defiant, saying it would continue operating in some form. They questioned the stringency of the ban, which prohibits any vessel with a digital billboard from “operating, anchoring or mooring in the navigable waters of the state” if they have “flashing, intermittent or moving lights.”

That definition, they argue, allows enough wiggle room to permit them to continue to float some of the advertisements, which have touted everything from Heineken to the latest Grinch movie.

Adam Shapiro, the company’s chief executive, said on Monday he was disappointed by the governor’s decision but remained “undeterred.”

“Our legal team believes these changes to the navigation law do not prohibit us from operating,” he said in a statement. “Instead they offer clarity on what we can and cannot display with our platform. As such, Ballyhoo intends to continue providing an innovative platform that encourages creativity, collaboration, and community.”

Earlier this year, New York City filed a lawsuit against Ballyhoo trying to stop the Florida-based company, arguing that the billboards were a public nuisance and safety hazard, and seeking to prevent the company from sailing the electronic billboard barges in its waters.

The city subsequently received a preliminary injunction preventing the barges from coming within 1,500 feet of the city’s shore or within view of any “arterial highway” like the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive or the West Side Highway. Settlement talks in that case are continuing.

The billboards have also been the subject of legal action in Florida, where they bob in the offshore waters of the Atlantic within view of Miami beachgoers. The Ballyhoo barges feature a 60-foot-long and 20-foot-high LED screen, visible from several thousand feet away.

In New York, the company had accused the city and state legislators of overreach, casting its fight as a First Amendment issue. (Shortly after the city filed suit in March, the company floated a billboard with this message: “Freedom is the foundation of our country.”)

The bill, which passed the Legislature in June, does allow localities to opt in if they want their residents or visitors to be pitched while staring at the sea or river way. But such an outcome seemed unlikely for opponents of the billboards, who likened the blinking barges to dangerous distraction for drivers and an ugly intrusion into the natural world.

“I believe that our riverfront is one of the last sanctuaries for New Yorkers, and should be treated as such,” said State Senator Brad Hoylman, the Manhattan Democrat who sponsored the bill in Albany’s upper chamber. “We don’t need Times Square floating past us as we relax or play or take walks.”

Jesse McKinley is The Times’s Albany bureau chief. He was previously the San Francisco bureau chief, and a theater columnist and Broadway reporter for the Culture Desk. @jessemckinley

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