The same weirdly specific ads you see online that are tailored to your behavior soon could 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.
That information will give broadcasters the ability to sell targeted advertising against their programming, something that's become common practice for ad giants such as Google and Facebook. Other industries also have been racing to adopt data-driven ad targeting, including internet service 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 that this week's vote will simply approve "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 would 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," Chester said. 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 also would do away with certain rules that currently prevent TV stations in the same market from merging with each other. That proposal came a day after the FCC voted to roll back a rule requiring broadcast stations to operate a physical studio in the market where they are licensed.
Together, these changes could enable 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 the air and higher odds of a local station's programming being controlled by executives who live far 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. (Tribune Media was formerly Tribune Co., which owned the Los Angeles Times before spinning off its newspapers into a separate company in 2014.)
The Sinclair-Tribune deal would give Sinclair access to more than 70% of 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" Tribune could help provide.
"Once you have that big of a news presence, it opens up a lot of avenues for new models to be explored," he said, adding that Sinclair was weighing the idea of creating personalized news channels with the combined company.
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.
Supporters of the standard say Americans' privacy would be protected by the Federal Trade Commission, which is empowered to sue companies that fail to live up to their public statements. In recent years, the FTC has made data security and privacy a major focus of its work.
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," Chester said.
Fung writes for the Washington Post.