When you sign up for an ad-supported streaming service, the trade-off may seem straightforward: In exchange for watching commercials, you’ll pay lower prices (or perhaps nothing at all).
But by sitting through commercial breaks, you’re giving up more than just a few minutes of your time per hour. Smart TVs and streaming devices represent a treasure trove of data for marketers, who can learn a lot about you based on what you watch. By associating your streaming TV accounts with broader marketing profiles, advertisers can see if they’ve influenced your behavior on other devices and could potentially use that activity to further influence the ads on your TV.
Ad tech experts say the data they get from streaming TV users is supercharging what’s already a booming business. The Interactive Advertising Bureau expects streaming TV ad spending to hit $21.2 billion this year, up from from $15.2 billion in 2021, AdWeek reports, and both Disney and Netflix are now developing ad-supported tiers.
Yet consumer privacy advocates fear that streaming devices are creating a new frontier for digital surveillance, one in which users have little control over their data.
“They have deliberately ported over the surveillance advertising complex into the streaming video OTT [over-the-top] system,” says Jeffrey Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. “And the technology, marketing, and ad practices—the expansion of monitoring viewers and families—is a four-alarm privacy and online consumer protection fire.”
The new frontier
Ad-supported streaming is on the rise for several reasons, the most obvious being the decline of traditional TV and corresponding growth in streaming. According to Leichtman Research Group, the top cable, satellite, and telco TV providers have lost more than 10 million subscribers over the past two years.
As a result, advertisers are turning to streaming video, where ad-supported services are taking off. Paramount’s Pluto TV now has 64.4 million monthly active users, and its viewing hours grew by 50% last year. Fox’s Tubi grew its viewing hours by 40% and has 40 million active users. Hulu has said that 70% of its viewers are on an ad-supported plan; likewise, an HBO Max executive has said that “droves” of customers are choosing the ad-supported plan it launched last year.
But advertisers aren’t merely following the eyeballs from linear TV. They’re also responding, at least in part, to broader industry changes that can hinder tracking on other platforms.
On Apple’s iOS, for instance, apps must now get users’ permission to track their activity in other apps as part of its App Tracking Transparency initiative. Google also plans to make opting out of cross-app tracking easier on Android, and it aims to phase out third-party cookies in its Chrome browser next year, making it harder for marketers to monitor individual users’ behavior. The rise of private search engines and web browsers is also giving users more ways to curb data collection on their devices.
Because of those changes—and the potential for new privacy laws that might further limit data collection—advertisers fear that they may have to spend more to reach specific audiences, so they’re starting to experiment with new options.
“The boom in CTV ads we are seeing is a natural reaction to the increased acquisition costs [App Tracking Transparency] has set,” Brian Quinn, the president of marketing analytics firm AppsFlyer, writes in an email.
A “data-rich environment”
As a venue for data collection, streaming TV is largely unconstrained. Platforms like Roku and Fire TV don’t offer simple ways to opt out of tracking—the options to hide a unique ID from advertisers are buried deep within their respective settings menus. And they have little control over individual streaming services, each of which have their own data collection policies.
Smart TVs can even monitor everything you’re watching, including on external streaming players and game consoles, and some of them sell that data to marketers. (Vizio famously settled a lawsuit in 2017 alleging that it failed to disclose the practice.)
Besides, these services are establishing direct relationships with viewers, which means they know not only what users are watching, but also their names, email addresses, and even credit card information. Even Apple’s App Tracking Transparency system does nothing to prevent this kind of first-party data collection.
“These services have a direct-to-consumer play, so when Paramount puts its content into Paramount+, essentially they know everything about the consumer,” says Ash Gangwar, the general manager for TV partnerships at the Trade Desk.
Once a streaming service has collected this information, it can work with a company like the Trade Desk to tie that data to other data sources. In essence, this allows an advertiser to use your activity on a phone or computer (or your transactions at physical stores) to target you with ads on TV devices, or to see if you bought what was advertised on TV.
“We find the same user, and if the advertiser can match that from a different channel, we would be able to use that for CTV targeting,” Gangwar says. “The data does not necessarily have to come from the CTV environment itself.”
Gangwar says that while streaming TV ads are already on “a hypergrowth track,” the ability to gather more data about viewers will only supercharge that growth in the years ahead.
“It will be a data-rich environment, and it will continue to grow in some cases at the expense of other channels like mobile and display, because it may get harder with some of the changes that are happening to get rich data in those environments,” he says.
Not all of this tracking is inherently nefarious. At the most benign level, advertisers are simply trying to measure how many people saw their ads, and ideally prevent users from seeing the same ads repeatedly (though they still seem to struggle with this).
Still, the Center for Digital Democracy’s Chester says advertisers can use the data collected by streaming TV services and platforms in ways that viewers may not anticipate. “If you watch show A, or you watch show B, it’s associated with buying product A or B, or political affiliation A and B,” he says. “It’s nothing more than what they’ve been able to do in the past, but now it’s much more automated, much more refined, much more actionable.”
Companies like Netflix are embracing ad-supported models, Chester says, because they’re sitting on troves of this data, and the technology now exists to utilize that information for larger and more comprehensive targeted ad campaigns. This data will prove especially valuable as privacy laws, Apple’s anti-tracking rules, and the deprecation of web browsing cookies make it harder to get data from elsewhere.
While Chester criticizes the TV industry for not being clear about what users are consenting to when they sign up for streaming services, he also blames the government for inadequate regulation. Through endless consolidation of media companies, it has allowed TV to become more expensive even as it turns to targeted ads to boost revenue.
“This indicates something is wrong with our digital media system,” he says. “We have looked the other way while a handful of companies have rewired America’s TV system to basically mimic what Google and [Facebook parent company] Meta have been able to perfect.”