Nielsen rule change may make your TV ads more like Facebook's

TV is getting more digital, but commercials still tend to be firehoses aimed at wide swaths of people. A Nielsen ratings change could make some TV ads more targeted to you.

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Nielsen is changing its ratings rules, and it may mean you see more ads targeted to you on TV. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Nielsen, the television ratings giant, is making a change to its rules that may mean the commercials you watch on TV start to feel like the ones in your Facebook feed: better targeted to you and your interests. But advancements in ad targeting bring questions about the privacy of your data, and TV's data practices are still developing. 

"Typically, when you turn on live television, you'll see the same ad as I do if we're both watching the same program," Scott Brown, general manager of audience measurement at Nielsen, said in an interview last week. The company's changes Tuesday are focused on taking Nielsen's traditional ratings info, like demographics, and crunching it with digital-viewing data too -- and then giving marketers "credit" when viewers like you see those ads on streamed TV, he said. 

"The way we're doing that puts those privacy concerns at the center," he said. 

Champions of this so-called addressable advertising say it'll make watching TV better, because you'll get more commercials for stuff you actually want and fewer ads for junk you don't. Think: Your grandpa sees the catheter ads while watching late-night election returns, and you get more spots about phones. Marketers and TV programmers have long hoped to see this sort of shift, as they've watched the popularity of internet-connected TV surge, all while ad dollars shifted online to ad-targeting behemoths like Facebook and Google.

But online advertising's unprecedented degree of tracking and targeting has brought increasing scrutiny, too. You are constantly tracked online, through things like cookies, tracking pixels, geolocation data and purchases. Data practices for connected-TV advertising are still developing, but it has instances of abuse. The US Federal Trade Commission sued Vizio for tracking customers' watching and selling that data without their consent in 2017, and 2015 brought revelations that Samsung TVs captured private conversations.

On Tuesday, Nielsen said it has struck data-integration deals with AT&T's DirecTV, Dish and Vizio to help make advertising addressable -- essentially, more targeted -- on about 55 million devices, including smart TVs and set-top boxes. (As part of Vizio's court settlement, it now gets express consent for collecting data.) 

Nielsen will bring in anonymized data from these companies and analyze it hand-in-hand with its own audience and demographic info, which it figures out from its panels. Sometimes referred to as being a "Nielsen household," Nielsen panels are its samples of people that represent bigger populations. They're at the core of how Nielsen reports that, for example, an estimated 63 million people watched the final US presidential debate and about 6 million of those were aged 18 to 34. People participating in Nielsen panels agree to be monitored. 

On top of that, Nielsen said Tuesday that it will now "credit" this kind of advertising seen on these platforms. That means programmers should be able to charge for this addressable advertising more easily, and marketers will be able to know better whether these kinds of ads actually made it to their intended audiences -- factors that should encourage both sides to pursue them more. 

Nielsen's changes apply to so-called linear TV watched on DirecTV, Dish and Vizio. Linear TV is what most people associated with regular TV that they watch live or later with something like a DVR recording. 

"This is a key part of a larger revolution," Brown said. "Ultimately, marketers and agencies have one place to see all of their audience numbers, so that they can ... reach consumers in a better way."

Watch this: Is Facebook spying on you?