Raises privacy concerns
FCC poised to let broadcasters gather data on viewers so advertisers can tailor pitches
Targeted ads that seem to follow you everywhere online may soon be doing the same on your TV.
The Federal Communications Commission is poised to approve a new broadcast standard that will let broadcasters do something cable TV companies already do: harvest data about what you watch so advertisers can customize pitches.
The prospect alarms privacy advocates, who say there are no rules setting boundaries for how broadcasters handle personal information. The FCC doesn’t mention privacy in the 109-page proposed rule that is scheduled for a vote by commissioners Thursday.
“If the new standard allows broadcasters to collect data in a way they haven’t before, I think consumers should know about that,” Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, said in an interview. “What privacy protections will apply to that data, and what security protections?"
For broadcasters, Next Gen TV represents an advance into the digital world that for decades has been siphoning viewers away to the likes of Facebook Inc., Netflix Inc., Google’s YouTube and Amazon.com Inc.’s Prime video service.
Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. and other TV station owners say the new standard, known as Next Gen TV, will provide sharper pictures and video on demand. It will also allow them to track viewers of their programming on tablets and other platforms.
This could prove lucrative for ad sales. For decades, TV stations sold commercials based on broad demographics, like how many 18- to 49-year-old women watched “Law and Order.” Data collected via Next Gen TV can help them up their game, much as cable providers use data from set-top boxes, and websites rely on browsing history to target ads.
Because the new standard is designed to be compatible with tablets and mobile phones, broadcasters expect to reach viewers away from their home TV sets — and learn their habits.
“We’ll know where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing — just like you do now, just like everybody does now, the internet does, or Google, or a Facebook,” Sinclair Executive Chairman David Smith told investors at the Wells Fargo Technology, Media & Telecom Conference Nov. 8. “We will have perfect data all the time.”
Cable companies have legal obligations to safeguard subscriber information, such as names and addresses, from unauthorized disclosure. Next Gen TV should have the same rules, Consumers Union and other groups said in a filing, and consumers also should be given a choice in how information about their viewing is used.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who proposed allowing the new broadcast standard a month after being nominated by President Donald Trump, told lawmakers at a Nov. 1 hearing that the FCC is “looking just at the technical standard” and may look at privacy concerns later. In a speech last week, Pai likened critics of Next Gen TV to opponents of the automobile more than a century ago, saying they dwell on challenges instead of embracing the benefits of innovation.
For broadcasters, Next Gen TV represents an advance into the digital world that for decades has been siphoning viewers away to the internet.