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Huge Dazzling Billboard Fights For Attention In Times Square

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

New York City likes to build things big. It boasts the tallest skyscraper in the United States, one World Trade Center, the longest suspension bridge - the Verrazano-Narrows. And now it's claiming one more superlative - the biggest billboard in North America. Stephen Nessen, from member station WNYC, was in the crowd last night for the official unveiling of a billboard the length of a city block.

STEPHEN NESSEN, BYLINE: There are a million things competing for your attention in Times Square - there's the naked cowboy mugging for photos at an intersection, dozens of costumed characters beckoning for you to take their picture. So will an eight-story billboard made of 25 million pixels get anyone's attention?

CHRISTINE POYER: I mean, how much more bigger can you get? This is pretty large.

NESSEN: An hour before its unveiling, Christine Poyer from Baltimore, Maryland, couldn't help but stop and marvel at the massive black wall.

POYER: I can't wait to see it. We're going to see a show, but afterwards, I'm like, we're coming back into Times Square. I want to see it.

NESSEN: A digital clock on the side of the Marriott Hotel counts down the minutes and seconds before the country's largest billboard comes to life. Dozens of people, including The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man and a Statue of Liberty on stilts, shuffle in the cold, waiting. Brian Corcoran, his wife and two kids, are in town from Boston. They're braving frigid winds to see what the fuss is all about.

BRIAN CORCORAN: We happened to be coincidently staying here about the Marriott Marquis and so all the talk in the lobby, get outside at around 7:15 to see what the show's all about.

NESSEN: Dozens of people aim their smartphones at the screen, ready to capture the moment. Music starts up and a swirling computer graphic of solid colors and a pulsating cityscape blaze across the screen. A a crow materializes from scattered pixels and dissolves into a blur of snow. Squinting at the bright lights, Corcoran seems underwhelmed, but he's happy to bring his children to Times Square. He remembers coming here decades ago, when it was a much seedier place.

CORCORAN: It's where you came to see a show of a different kind and here I am. It's much more family-friendly - exciting. I mean, there's no place like it in the world.

NESSEN: Not everyone agrees.

ED WALKER: I liked it much better when it was dirty and gritty.

NESSEN: Ed Walker lives in Long Island.

WALKER: It was funky, man. That's when I lived in the city. Now it's too bright. Look at all this energy being wasted.

NESSEN: Next week, Google will take over the space as the first advertiser. And if the size of the screen is meant to shock the viewer, it does for a few minutes, but then the crowd disperses, onto the next distraction. The Hulk and Iron Man find a more crowded block to stand on and the Statue of Liberty hobbles away. For NPR News, I'm Stephen Nessen in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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