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Blimps to show ‘TV in the sky’

Imagine a drive-in movie screen that floats 1,000 feet in the air  and travels 15 mph.   It could be coming to a night sky near you.
A blimp, with a 70-by-30 foot TV screen that can broadcast live images, flies over Hillsboro Air Field in Portland, Ore., on June 13, 2005.
A blimp, with a 70-by-30 foot TV screen that can broadcast live images, flies over Hillsboro Air Field in Portland, Ore., on June 13, 2005.The Lightship Group via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Imagine a drive-in movie screen that floats 1,000 feet in the air — and travels 15 mph. An Orlando-based blimp company called The Lightship Group has effectively made one, and it could be coming to a night sky near you.

The company recently received Federal Aviation Administration approval for its new A-170 lightship, an enormous blimp that doesn't just say "Goodyear" or "Coca-Cola" on the side, but instead flashes their newest commercials, NFL football highlights, movie trailers or whatever else a company wants to put on its 70-by-30-foot LED screen.

"It totally rises above the clutter because this is the only one of its kind in the world," said Toby Page, Lightship group marketing director. "It's never been seen before, so it gets a huge amount of attention."

The new blimp is the crossroads of technological advances in both balloon and LED technology, with stronger lift power, a more durable "envelope" (the part that fills with helium), and lighter, higher-quality electronics. Similar television screens previously were just too heavy.

It will first be deployed overseas next month, though company officials, at their client's request, are keeping secret who paid $5 million for a yearlong campaign or where it's headed.

The new airship has only been publicly exhibited once — for attendees at the National Broadcasters Association in April in Las Vegas and then two nights over the casino-lined Strip.

"It was an outrageous response," said Mickey Wittman, Lightship Group director of client services, adding that people in the crowd eagerly snapped cell phone pictures of the ship.  "We were afraid it would get lost in the neon."

Despite being around so long, the blimp advertising industry is still a relatively small one.  Only a few dozen ships around the world exist — 17 of them run by The Lightship Group — partly because a good measure of the industry's effectiveness owes to its novelty.  Fewer people standing, sitting or laying around anywhere are inclined to look up at something they see around every turn, the conventional wisdom goes.

As such, company officials don't plan on flooding the skies with their newest ship.  "We don't intend to stick 50 out in the U.S. We still want to make it exclusive," Page said, adding that the company might produce seven or eight over the next five years.

The newest ship took about two and a half years to develop, from design to FAA certification, but more could be made in about six months, Page said.

The LED screen on the current model can only run one color (red) during the day — with a full spectrum at night — but the next generation will be able to display the full rainbow even in sunlight.

The "screen" is really a series of several hundred rectangular pieces that resemble shingles, fixed by rubber buttons onto ultra-lightweight foam strips attached to the ship.  "Because the ship curves, every single one has to be adjusted so you get the perfect picture," Page says.

The blimp itself — called a "lightship" because it illuminates from the inside independent of the screen — measures 170 feet long, 55 feet high and 46 feet wide.

Big, but big enough to merit a $5 million advertising bill?

"People still notice those," said Richard Feinberg, professor of retail management at Purdue University and director of its Center for Customer Driven Quality.  "Will I pay attention to another radio advertisement, will I pay attention to another TV ad?  Probably not, but a blimp I'll look at."

Still, Feinberg said blimps are limited by geography, while TV and radio aren't.  They're everywhere, but you have to be standing near a blimp to see it.  Beyond that, he said, all forms of advertising must still compel someone to actually purchase something, not just notice the product.

"I've never heard anything like it, but it's a billboard. It's a floating billboard, only instead of you passing the billboard at 60 mph the billboard is passing you," he said.  "It would be very hard for me to believe from any research that somebody looks at a blimp of any form and says 'I've got to have that,' unless it says 'Free Dodge Vipers' or something."

Page and others at The Lightship Group cringe at the notion that blimps are just big signs in the sky.

The company says the new ships will attract free media advertising and can be used in interactive product promotions, like flashing a funny contest photograph of someone, showing text messages or on-the-ground photographs of spectators — even instant replays from the stadium below.  Further, the screen could be synched up with a radio channel that provides audio for the images above.

"This gives them the opportunity to actually use a product that can fit into all those different areas, and they are not committed to one form of advertising," Page says.  "It gives you now real-time flexibility to change what it says on the sign. Before it would take a matter of weeks, whereas now it's a matter of seconds."

And, Wittman says, the price rate is a comparatively good deal: $5 million for a yearlong campaign.  That money, he says, would only buy "five spots on American Idol — less, it'd be four spots.  It'd be two spots on the Super Bowl."