Beginning this fall, when Facebook users watch a TV show on a cellphone or tablet, Facebook will probably know about it. The social network will scan its databases and send the age and gender of the viewer to Nielsen, the TV ratings measurement company, to help advertisers learn more about the audience watching shows online.
For decades, Nielsen has recruited families to log what they watched at home and report back to Nielsen. Now, Nielsen is expanding beyond the family unit — and beyond the TV set — with help from Facebook and other data aggregators.
The very definition of "watching TV" has been changing fast. People are going from watching "channels" on TV sets in their living rooms to taking in their favorite shows on laptops, smartphones, tablets and, soon, their wristwatches. They're mobile, tuning in from the car, a train, the beach, the classroom or even the grocery store.
The Facebook-Nielsen partnership is part of a stepped-up campaign to get a better glimpse of how people are using computers and mobile devices for their entertainment. It also is intended to bring the art of audience measurement into the digital age.
"The world is shifting radically, and so we had to evolve our measurement so that we could capture all of this fragmented viewing," said Cheryl Idell, a Nielsen executive vice president.
But the notion that users will be unwittingly alerting researchers about their TV habits, however disguised, makes privacy advocates nervous.
"It's interesting to me that I'm watching a video somewhere and somehow Facebook knows that," said Chris Conley, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union in Northern California.
Julia Horwitz, a consumer protections counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, takes a tougher stand. "Consumers really are not aware of the extent to which Facebook is putting their non-Facebook activity to use," she said. "Watching television and surfing the Internet shouldn't necessarily involve Facebook."
By teaming up with Facebook, Nielsen gains a window into the demographics of the audience using digital devices — even if the users are not part of Nielsen's regular sample audience of 55,000 people in the U.S. Nielsen also is using information from Experian Marketing Services, which gathers troves of data on Americans, to learn more about this on-the-go audience.
Matching what TV shows Americans like with personal characteristics, such as age and gender, is intended to help marketers create better-targeted, more-efficient advertisements — often without reminding users that the data are being collected.
Nielsen and Facebook say they designed the process in a way that shields people's identities.
"It is all anonymous and privacy-protected," Idell said.
The set-up, as the companies describe it, is somewhat like a double-blind science experiment. The information sent to Facebook, they say, is not the name of the show, but a numerical code. The data sent back to Nielsen are in aggregate so Nielsen doesn't know the identities of any of the Facebook users.
Facebook won't even know what show the code stands for. But Nielsen will learn, for instance, the age and gender breakdowns of the digital audience watching "MasterChef" or "The Bachelorette."
There's a lot at stake. Television advertising is a $65-billion-a-year business. Separately, online video advertising is one of the fastest-growing segments, according to research firm EMarketer. Digital video ad revenue is expected to expand 40% this year to $6 billion.
"Americans are using more devices than ever before to watch video content, and the number of content producers has proliferated," said Lyle Schwartz, a managing partner of the advertising behemoth Group M. "That fragments the audience." On the other hand, "it also gives advertisers the ability to target their messages."
The mobile measurement approach is a continuation of a Facebook-Nielsen partnership that began in 2010, when the companies began collecting data about what online advertisements were being watched in similar fashion from desktops and laptops. But mobile device technology was tougher to deal with, hence the delay. The tracking will work only on devices that have been used to log onto Facebook.
TV networks and advertisers have been pressuring Nielsen to expand its measurement. After all, adoption rates for tablets have been much faster than for other technologies, such as smartphones and digital video recorders.
The first successful tablet computer, the Apple iPad, was introduced in 2010. Now, at least 42% of American adults own tablet computers, up from 34% in September of last year, and nearly none in 2010, according to a recent Pew Research Center report.
Nielsen has honed a reputation for guarding the privacy of its members. "It's in our DNA," Idell said.
And now, for example, when tablet users prepare to watch TV shows on a device by downloading an app that contains an embedded Nielsen "software meter," they would be notified that their views would be counted — unless they want to opt out.
But Facebook continues to draw criticism for being less than transparent about its privacy policies. The latest storm followed revelations that Facebook conducted an experiment on users without telling them. Facebook researchers adjusted what posts some users saw on their news feeds, and then assessed how the mood of the affected users' posts changed in reaction.
"We have worked with Nielsen under strong privacy principles," a Facebook spokesperson said. "We don't believe that audience measurement systems should be used to adjust targeting; they should only be used for measurement. This protects the privacy of people viewing ads and ensures that both advertisers and publishers have the same information about the audiences."
Clearly, Facebook intends to go well beyond the Nielsen partnership to assess online video statistics. This month, the company said it would buy a start-up company called LiveRail that specializes in the delivery of online video ads to desired demographics.
Last year, for the first time, Facebook collected more display ad dollars than longtime leader Google Inc. In 2013, Facebook accounted for nearly one-fifth of the U.S. display advertising market.
Asked whether Facebook will limit itself to anonymous age and gender statistics when communicating video-watching information to content providers and advertisers in the future, a spokesperson said there are currently no plans to go beyond those factors.
Television and advertising executives say privacy concerns are paramount. They don't want viewers to begin to distrust their monitoring efforts.
"We have to be able to understand how consumers are seeking out our ads across all these different platforms," Schwartz said. "But we have got to make sure we do this with the permission of the viewers. We are very cognizant of that line that exists — and we don't want to cross it."
"And all you need is one mistake," Schwartz said.