Over the last few years, television tech has taken genuine leaps and bounds. New technologies haven’t just given us higher resolutions, like 4K — we’ve seen the introduction of HDR and new capabilities like FreeSync (expected to arrive this year), while OLEDs and quantum dot LEDs both improve color reproduction and image quality. After failed bets like 3-D, the television industry has reoriented around major improvements to core technology, and viewers have benefited. Not all the gains, however, are positive. Next-generation sets that support the ATSC 3.0 broadcast format also support an entirely new generation of spyware.
ATSC 3.0 is a conglomeration of 20 different standards, including support for 4K, HEVC, 120Hz refresh rates, HDR, Dolby AC-4 audio, digital watermarking of audio and visual signals, new emergency broadcast capabilities, and a host of other new features. It also includes the ability to run targeted advertising and to monitor television programming far more directly than any current system. Broadcasters aren’t talking up that aspect of the standard, despite the impact it could have on TV revenue. Tech Hive recently visited an ATSC 3.0 demonstration and unsurprisingly, advertising was key to the entire project.
ATSC 3.0 allows broadcasters to serve you a browser window that looks like a conventional menu. The advantage of this is that the look and feel of an application can be standardized rather than being TV-centric, and there could even be some benefits to providing certain services via your provider rather than having them be tied to the television. But the tradeoff is that you’ll be sending your broadcaster an itemized list of everything you watch, how long you watch it, and whether you finished the program.
The article even demonstrates an app that delivers free video-on-demand services for a period of time as a loyalty bonus for “watching our content and enabling user settings.” There is literally no reason to believe broadcasters will do anything less than aggressively monetize this data. At no point in the last few decades has the ability to track people or monetize their lives been met with anything but rapacious greed. The ATSC 3.0 standard may be built off dozens of components, but it doesn’t include a privacy standard of any sort. The goal is to use viewing and content tracking to deliver personalized advertising to the user on an ongoing basis.
At present, each channel would only be able to track your behavior when watching its own content, but content aggregation makes this less protection than it might seem. The Sinclair Broadcast Group, for example, owns multiple stations in more than a few markets. If Sinclair owns both WUTV and WNYO TV in the Buffalo, NY market (and it does), there’s nothing stopping it from tracking your activity on both channels and combining that information for the purposes of advertising. And while Sinclair’s reach across the country makes it the most obvious beneficiary of this kind of tracking, any media conglomerate that owns more than a single station in a broadcast market would benefit from the same tracking options.
The solution to this problem is straightforward: Buy a TV if you want, but don’t connect it to the internet.