Leading studios, networks and production companies in Hollywood—such as Disney, Paramount, Comcast/NBCU, Warner Bros. Discovery and Amazon—know where their dollars will come from in the future. As streaming video becomes the dominant form of TV in the U.S., the biggest players in the entertainment industry are harvesting the cornucopia of data increasingly gathered from viewers. While some studio chiefs publicly chafe over the demands from striking actors and writers as being unrealistic, they know that their heavy investments in “adtech” will drive greater profitability. Streaming video data not only generates higher advertising and commerce revenues, but also serves as a valuable commodity for the precise online tracking and targeting of consumers.
Streaming video is now a key part in what the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) calls the “commercial surveillance” marketplace. Data about our viewing behaviors, including any interactions with the content, is being gathered by connected and “smart” TVs, streaming devices such as Roku, in-house studio and network data mining operations, and by numerous targeting and measurement entities that now serve the industry.
For example, Comcast’s NBCUniversal “One Platform” uses what it calls “NBCU ID”—a “first-party identifier [that] provides a persistent indicator of who a consumer is to us over time and across audiences.” Last year it rolled out “200 million unique person-level NBCU IDs mapped to 80 million households.”
Disney’s Select advertising system uses a “proprietary Audience Graph” incorporating “100,000 attributes” to help “1800 turnkey” targeting segments. There are 235 million device IDs available to reach, says Disney, 110 million households. It also operates a “Disney Real-time Ad Exchange (DRAX), a data clean room and what it calls “Yoda”—a “yield optimized delivery allocation” empowering its ad server.
Warner Bros. Discovery recently launched “WBD Stream,” providing marketers with “seamless access… to popular and premium content.” It also announced partnerships with several data and research companies designed to help “marketers to push consumers further down the path to purchase.” One such alliance involves “605,” which helps WBD track how effective its ads are in delivering actual sales from local retailers, including the use of set-top box data from Comcast as well as geolocation tracking information.
Amazon has long supported its video streaming advertising sales, including with its “Freevee” network, through its portfolio of cutting-edge data tools. Among the ad categories targeted by Amazon’s streaming service are financial services, candy and beauty products. One advantage it touts is that streaming marketers can get help from “Amazon’s Ads data science team,” including an analysis of “signals in [the] Amazon Marketing Cloud.”
Other major players in video streaming have also supercharged their data technologies, including Roku, Paramount, and Samsung, in order to target what are called “advanced audiences.” That’s the capability to have so much information available that a programmer can pinpoint a target for personalized marketing across a vast universe of media content. While subscription is a critical part of video revenues, programmers want to draw from multiple revenue streams, especially advertising.
To help advance the ability of the TV business to have access to more thorough datasets, leading TV, advertising and measurement companies have formed the “U.S. Joint Industry Committee” (JIC). Warner Bros. Discovery, Fox, NBCU, TelevisaUnivision, Paramount, and AMC are among the programmers involved with JIC. They are joined by a powerhouse composed of the largest ad agencies (data holders as well), including Omnicom, WPP and Publicis. One outcome of this alliance will be a set of standards to measure the impact of video and other ads on consumers, including through the use of “Big Data” and cross-platform measurement.
Of course, today’s video and filmed entertainment business includes more than ad-supported services. There’s subscription revenue for streaming–said to pass $50 billion for the U.S. this year– as well as theatrical release. But it’s very evident that the U.S. (as well as the global) entertainment business is in a major transition, where the requirement to identify, track and target an individual (or groups of people) online and as much offline as possible is essential. For example, Netflix is said to be exploring ways it can advance its own solution to personalized ad targeting, drawing its brief deal with Microsoft Advertising to a close.
Leading retailers, including Walmart (NBCU) and Kroger (Disney), are also part of today’s streaming video advertising landscape. Making the connections to what we view on the screen and then buy at a store is a key selling point for today’s commercial surveillance-oriented streaming video apparatus. A growing part of the revenue from streaming will be commissions from the sale of a product after someone sees an ad and buys that product, including on the screen during a program. For example, as part of its plans to expand retail sales within its programming, NBCU’s “Checkout” service “identifies objects in video and makes them interactive and shoppable.”
Another key issue for the Hollywood unions is the role of AI. With that technology already a core part of the advertising industry’s arsenal, its use will likely be integrated into video programming—something that should be addressed by the SAG-AFTRA and WGA negotiations.
The unions deserve to capture a piece of the data-driven “pie” that will further drive industry profits. But there’s more at stake than a fair contract and protections for workers. Rather than unleashing the creativity of content providers who are part of a environment promoting diversity, equity and the public interest, the new system will be highly commercialized, data driven, and controlled by a handful of dominant entities. Consider the growing popularity of what are called “FAST” channels—which stands for “free ad supported streaming television.” Dozens of these channels, owned by Comcast/NBCU, Paramount, Fox, and Amazon, are now available, and filled with relatively low-cost content that can reap the profits from data and ads.
The same powerful forces that helped undermine broadcasting, cable TV, and the democratic potential of what once was called the “information superhighway”—the Internet—are now at work shaping the emerging online video landscape. Advertising and marketing, which are already the influence behind the structure and affordances of digital media, are fashioning video streaming to be another—and critically important—component fostering surveillance marketing.
The FTC’s forthcoming proposed rulemaking on commercial surveillance must address the role of streaming video. And the FCC should open up its own proceeding on streaming, one designed to bring structural changes to the industry in terms of ownership of content and distribution. There’s also a role for antitrust regulators to examine the data partnerships emerging from the growing collaboration by networks and studios to pool data resources.
The fight for a fairer deal for writers and actors deserves the backing of regulators and the public. But a successful outcome for the strike should be just “Act One” of a comprehensive digital media reform effort. While the transformation of the U.S. TV system is significantly underway, it’s not too late to try to program “democracy” into its foundation.
Jeff Chester is the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a DC-based NGO that works to ensure that digital technologies serve and strengthen democratic values and institutions. Its work on streaming video is supported, in part, by the Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment.
This op-ed was initially published by the Tech Policy Press.