Beginning this fall, when Facebook users watch a TV show on a cellphone or tablet, Facebook will probably know about it. The social network will scan its databases and send the age and gender of the viewer to Nielsen, the TV ratings measurement company, to help advertisers learn more about the audience watching shows online.
For decades, Nielsen has recruited families to log what they watched at home and report back to Nielsen. Now, Nielsen is expanding beyond the family unit -- and beyond the TV set -- with help from Facebook and other data aggregators.
The very definition of "watching TV" has been changing fast. People are going from watching "channels" on TV sets in their living rooms to taking in their favorite shows on laptops, smartphones, tablets and, soon, their wristwatches. They're mobile, tuning in from the car, a train, the beach, the classroom or even the grocery store.
The Facebook-Nielsen partnership is part of a stepped-up campaign to get a better glimpse of how people are using computers and mobile devices for their entertainment. It also is intended to bring the art of audience measurement into the digital age.
"The world is shifting radically, and so we had to evolve our measurement so that we could capture all of this fragmented viewing," said Cheryl Idell, a Nielsen executive vice president.
But the notion that users will be unwittingly alerting researchers about their TV habits, however disguised, makes privacy advocates nervous.
"It's interesting to me that I'm watching a video somewhere and somehow Facebook knows that," said Chris Conley, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union in Northern California.
Julia Horwitz, a consumer protections counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, takes a tougher stand. "Consumers really are not aware of the extent to which Facebook is putting their non-Facebook activity to use," she said. "Watching television and surfing the Internet shouldn't necessarily involve Facebook."
By teaming up with Facebook, Nielsen gains a window into the demographics of the audience using digital devices -- even if the users are not part of Nielsen's regular sample audience of 55,000 people in the U.S. Nielsen also is using information from Experian Marketing Services, which gathers troves of data on Americans, to learn more about this on-the-go audience.
Matching what TV shows Americans like with personal characteristics, such as age and gender, is intended to help marketers create better-targeted, more-efficient advertisements -- often without reminding users that the data are being collected. (continued...)
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