Now Google wants to keep track of everything you watch on TV

27/03/2015

With classic Google-esque understatement, Google Fiber announced it would be adding TV ad serving software to its broadband service in Kansas City this week. An email told subscribers that “ads will be digitally delivered in real time and can be matched based on geography, the type of programme being shown (eg, sports or news), or viewing history”.

This is a reversal of the traditional TV buying model. Instead of using data around programming to select spots that will hopefully reach desirable audiences, advertisers will be able to choose exactly who sees their spots using programmatic. It is similar to Sky Adsmart – which tailors ads to the location and profile – but it’s smarter, and takes account of viewing history, giving advertisers the control they are used to on digital platforms.

Google is not the first company to bring programmatic targeting to TV, but it is one of the largest, and has the advantage of being able to validate and integrate Fiber with its massive online ad prowess. The industry response was enthusiastic: it “could mean huge changes for the advertising business” wrote Ben Geier on Fortune; Conor Dougherty at the New York Times said it could “represent a sea change in how television ads are viewed and sold”. If TV buying was to become this programmatic, advertisers would no longer be reliant on panel based viewing figures.

But a number of commentators were concerned about what this means for privacy. Klint Finley in Wired mentioned how easy it is to make a ‘TV watches you’ crack about Google Fiber. It’s true that we are not used to the idea of the programmes we watch being logged and analysed to be turned into advertising fodder, but this is already happening with set-top boxes like Sky AdSmart. And we take for granted how intimately our computer and phones know us and our weird and embarrassing habits. Digital advertisers would now consider operating in any other way incredibly inefficient.

Realistically, Google Fiber isn’t going to be taking over the TV advertising industry any time soon. With only 30,000 subscribers it represents a tiny proportion of the market. Research firm MoffettNathanson has commented that it is “something to be taken seriously…but the numbers are very small and it gets more press attention than it deserves”. This aside, Google Fiber does highlight just how much more targeted TV advertising could become.

Despite this, stations might feel that a complete shift to programmatic would overly commoditise TV content, to such an extent that the quality of programming would become insignificant. Furthermore, digital can’t come any near TV in its ability to reach a large amount of people at the same time. So in terms of billings and reach, TV still rules: Thinkbox has reported that advertising revenue in the UK increased by 6% in 2014 in a fifth consecutive year of growth, and that last year 800 new brands started advertising on TV, which suggests that, for now, programmatic TV is going to be staying in Kansas City.

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