FCC con­sid­ers let­ting TV net­works get data on view­ers

Sta­tions could use the in­for­ma­tion to tai­lor ads to con­sumers’ be­hav­ior

The Washington Post - - ECONOMY & BUSINESS - BY BRIAN FUNG

The same, weirdly spe­cific ads you see on­line that are tai­lored to your be­hav­ior could soon ap­pear on your lo­cal tele­vi­sion net­work, thanks to loom­ing pol­icy changes by fed­eral reg­u­la­tors.

The Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion is ex­pected to vote Thurs­day on rules de­signed to pro­mote the spread of what it calls Next Gen TV, a new tech­nol­ogy that, among other things, will en­able tele­vi­sion broad­cast­ers to col­lect data about your view­ing habits.

The in­for­ma­tion will give broad­cast­ers the abil­ity to sell tar­geted ad­ver­tis­ing against their pro­gram­ming, some­thing that’s be­come com­mon prac­tice among ad giants such as Google and Face­book. Other in­dus­tries have also been rac­ing to adopt datadriven ad tar­get­ing, too, in­clud­ing In­ter­net providers such as Ver­i­zon and AT&T.

Pro­po­nents of Next Gen TV — which also goes by a tech­ni­cal name, ATSC 3.0 — say the stan­dard could bring many lo­cal tele­vi­sion sta­tions up to par with the lat­est in ad­ver­tis­ing tech­nol­ogy and help them com­pete in a world of In­ter­net me­dia.

“One of the many ben­e­fits of the Next Gen TV stan­dard will be the en­hanced abil­ity for broad­cast­ers to know more pre­cisely what rat­ings agen­cies now just es­ti­mate,” said Jer­ald Fritz, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of One Me­dia, a broad­cast tech­nol­ogy com­pany help­ing to de­velop the stan­dard.

Not all sta­tions are likely to adopt Next Gen TV im­me­di­ately. The FCC pro­posal would al­low sta­tions to start us­ing the stan­dard on a vol­un­tary ba­sis. Those that do could pro­vide view­ers with other ben­e­fits, such as bet­ter video and au­dio qual­ity on their broad­casts. The FCC said Tues­day in a state­ment that this week’s vote will sim­ply “ap­prov[e] a tech­ni­cal stan­dard for one-way trans­mis­sions from broad­cast­ers to view­ers” and that any fu­ture abil­i­ties for broad­cast­ers to re­ceive data about view­ers would be gov­erned by the Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion’s guide­lines on pri­vacy.

But pri­vacy ad­vo­cates say the de­vel­op­ment of highly pre­cise dig­i­tal track­ing in yet an­other in­dus­try will mean a set­back for con­sumers and could fur­ther con­cen­trate power among a small hand­ful of cor­po­ra­tions.

Jef­frey Ch­ester, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Dig­i­tal Democ­racy, said the FCC failed to in­clude any mean­ing­ful pri­vacy safe­guards for con­sumers in the Next Gen TV pro­posal.

“The FCC has placed Amer­i­cans who watch TV and on­line video at grave risk when it comes to their pri­vacy,” said Ch­ester. He added that other rule changes the FCC is seek­ing to make this week could ac­cel­er­ate the ero­sion of con­sumer pri­vacy as the tele­vi­sion in­dus­try be­comes more con­sol­i­dated.

One such pol­icy change un­der con­sid­er­a­tion is a pro­posal to roll back decades-old reg­u­la­tions that limit how many me­dia out­lets can be­long to a sin­gle com­pany in a lo­cal mar­ket.

An­nounced last month, the FCC ef­fort would al­low com­pa­nies to own both a TV sta­tion and a news­pa­per in the same mar­ket. It would also do away with cer­tain rules that cur­rently pre­vent TV sta­tions in the same mar­ket from merg­ing with each other. That pro­posal came just a day af­ter the FCC voted to roll back a third rule re­quir­ing broad­cast sta­tions to op­er­ate a phys­i­cal stu­dio in the mar­ket where they are li­censed.

To­gether, these changes could al­low eco­nom­i­cally strug­gling sta­tions to sur­vive by join­ing forces. But crit­ics say they will lead to greater con­sol­i­da­tion of U.S. me­dia, a re­duc­tion in the num­ber of in­de­pen­dent voices on air and higher odds of a lo­cal sta­tion’s pro­gram­ming be­ing con­trolled by ex­ec­u­tives who live far away from their au­di­ences.

The pol­icy pro­pos­als are tak­ing shape against the back­drop of a $3.9 bil­lion deal by Sin­clair, the con­ser­va­tive-lean­ing broad­cast­ing com­pany, to ac­quire Tri­bune Me­dia, which op­er­ates dozens of sta­tions na­tion­wide. The deal would give Sin­clair ac­cess to more than 70 per­cent of all U.S. house­holds. In an earn­ings call this month, Sin­clair chief ex­ec­u­tive Christo­pher Ri­p­ley said he was ex­cited about the “near-na­tion­wide news cov­er­age foot­print” that Tri­bune could help pro­vide.

Some of those new busi­ness mod­els may be en­abled, at least in part, by Next Gen TV. Other Sin­clair of­fi­cials called the tech­nol­ogy “the Holy Grail . . . for the ad­ver­tiser,” say­ing it is unique in its abil­ity to help broad­cast­ers un­der­stand who is watch­ing the pro­gram­ming and from where.

But pri­vacy ad­vo­cates ar­gue that the data in­dus­try is still es­sen­tially a Wild West en­vi­ron­ment with few con­crete rules.

“With the FCC fur­ther weak­en­ing safe­guards de­signed to pro­mote com­pe­ti­tion and di­ver­sity of own­er­ship, they are turn­ing con­trol of our data to fewer un­ac­count­able cor­po­ra­tions,” said Ch­ester.

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