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.
That information will give broadcasters the ability to sell targeted advertising, something that's become common practice among ad giants such as Google and Facebook.
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.
"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 VP 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 voluntarily. Those that do could provide viewers with other benefits, like better video and audio quality. The FCC said Tuesday in a statement that this week's vote will "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 (FTC) guidelines on privacy.
But privacy advocates said 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 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 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 said they will lead to greater consolidation of U.S. media and higher odds of a local station's programming being controlled by executives who live far away from their audiences.
Supporters of the standard said Americans' privacy would be protected by the FTC, which is empowered to sue companies that fail to live up to their public statements.
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 ... they are turning control of our data to fewer unaccountable corporations," Chester said.