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Billboards Set For Next Evolution

Fri., April 5, 1996

Never let reality stand in the way of good television advertising.

Long suspected as the war cry of the Madison Avenue, it now could become a technological reality with the digital billboard system created by Imadgine Video Systems Ltd., a London-based multimedia company.

The digital billboard - based on the Gulf War technology that produced the smart bomb - allows TV broadcasters to superimpose their advertising over pre-existing or blank billboard space at any sports venue.

Although several companies are trying to develop such a system, Imadgine will give it its first worldwide test on May 18 at a pre-Olympic track meet in Atlanta.

“What it really does is it allows anyone who has the ‘black box’ in individual countries to tailor the advertising to their own sponsorship,” Imadgine director Peter Sprogis said.

Sprogis said the technology is an offshoot of the same technology that allowed the United States to deliver smart bombs to targets during the Gulf War.

“Inside the smart bomb is a computer which has fed into it a video image of the terrain. A camera on the bomb tries to match that image to the actual terrain,” Sprogis said.

That’s what Imadgine’s digital billboard does, too. It matches an advertisers’ billboards to terrain that already exists at the stadium or arena.

Imadgine was born out of a collaboration between ISL Marketing of the Netherlands, with its television experience, and Orad Hi-Tec Systems of Israel, which helped develop the smart bomb technology.

Sprogis said the Atlanta track meet is the first tryout of any such system on a worldwide basis with distribution expected to more than 130 countries, including via Turner Sports in the United States.

“We might even stick in a billboard on the grass somewhere a hello to Bill Clinton, just to wish him luck,” Sprogis said. “But then we’d probably be approached by the other candidates, too.”

Imadgine’s system comes to television after a lot of bugs were worked out, such as its ability to produce under severe weather conditions. Also, Sprogis said, there originally was a problem with flickering when the camera was panned quickly across the ad.

Software also had to be designed so that any advertising wouldn’t blot out the athletes when they walked in front of it.

Sprogis said the technology is so new that safeguards must yet be developed to prevent abuse. For example, from Atlanta, title credits will include a disclaimer advising viewers which advertisements were electronically created.

“One of the ethical codes we’re sticking by is that we don’t do anything that is improper or against the best interests of the consumer or rights holder. We will always work with the rights holder,” Sprogis said.

Sprogis said that technically, and perhaps legally as well, anyone willing to spend the money for the digital billboard system could put any ad anywhere he wanted. For example, if Dutch television wanted to show the Super Bowl, it could replace the NFL insignia at midfield with a wooden shoe.

“You’d be surprised how television contracts are constructed,” Sprogis said. “They didn’t foresee this.”

That’s one of the reasons, Sprogis said, that Imadgine’s technology is not for sale - only for rent.

Out takes

Last year, Bob Gutkowski left Madison Square Garden after serving as its president and found himself out of work. The average unemployed stiff should find such a solution to this dilemma.

In December, Gutkowski brought together Michael Traeger of SMTI, a major TV production and marketing company, and Arthur Kaminsky of Athletes & Artists, which represents some of the top TV talent in the sports business.

And voila, the Marquee Group.

“The way we want to take the company is we want to create the programming, produce the programming and, if need be, sell the programming,” said Gutkowski, president and CEO of the new company. “We want to be able to sell the same product we create and build a strong marketing arm.”

Gutkowski knew Traeger from their days together at NBC, and he had formed a longtime relationship with Kaminsky, “negotiating with him, for him and against him over the years.

“Their companies weren’t for sale, but they were intrigued by the possibilities of a merger like this,” Gutkowski said.

Since the Marquee Group was formed in December, it has been rather quiet, but Gutkowski said it won’t be quiet much longer.

“Our conversations have been so varied, we’re trying to cull it down to a few things that we really want to work on,” Gutkowski said. “But the more opportunities you have, the more chances you have for success.”

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