Targeted ads that seem to follow you everywhere online may soon be doing the same on your TV.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 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 customise 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 on 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. “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. “We will have perfect data all the time.”
Cable companies have legal obligations to safeguard subscriber information, such as names and addresses, from unauthorised disclosure. Next Gen TV should have the same rules, Consumers Union and other groups said in a filing, and consumers 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 hearing that the FCC is “looking just at the technical standard” and may look at privacy concerns later. In a speech, 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.
“They want to impose extensive government regulation that could strangle Next Gen TV in its infancy,” Pai said, adding that critics are rooted in “fear and opportunism, not freedom and opportunity.”
Sinclair will have 233 stations if its merger with Tribune Media Co. is approved by antitrust regulators. It also has formed a partnership to share airwaves with Nexstar Media Group Inc.’s 170 stations. Private-equity owned Spanish-language broadcaster Univision Holdings Inc. also has joined the alliance.
Approval by the FCC would come as
the agency also decides whether to loosen restrictions on owning multiple TV stations in a local market—a long-sought goal of broadcasters.