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Your TV is watching you

About the author
David Burke is the British Director of White Dot, the international campaign against television, and author of Spy TV: Just Who Is the Digital TV Revolution Overthrowing? (Slab-o-Concrete, 1999).

Digital interactive television (iTV) is being launched across the world with many buzzwords originally used to describe the internet – choice, control, empowerment, digital revolution and democracy.

But, unlike the internet (so far), iTV is tightly controlled by the corporations and governments who now make television. And, unlike the internet, privacy issues are not a side effect. These systems have been designed, since the 1970s, to gather information about viewers in their homes. That information will be much more accurate than what can be collected on the internet. And you will have no say over what hardware or software is installed in your living room.

Phil Swain of Cable & Wireless, one of the big global players in iTV development, describes what ‘viewer choice’ means to him: “Changing channels, selecting certain programmes, viewing habits, browsing through interactive sites, purchasing habits, all that kind of stuff we can track. Every click we can track. We will be recording that information.”

Its proponents typically enthuse about the services iTV offers to viewers, such as ordering pizza by remote control. They do not mention the services it offers advertisers and marketing men. Bob Evans, West Coast Head of Sales for the interactive advertising company SpotOn, points to a set top box and boasts: “See that box? That box can hold 64,000 pieces of information about you!”

Lab Rats in the living room

These raw data are analysed by artificial intelligence software. Digital fingerprints emerge from such simple things as how you use your mute button, and they can be used to place you in demographic and even ‘psychographic’ categories. This is the interactivity that matters. Even if you do not use it to play games or send email, even if it looks and acts like an ordinary TV set, your next television will always be watching you watch.

Matthew Timms, head of Two Way TV in London, laughed as he said: “Somehow they feel they’re sitting there, it’s just them and the television – even though the reality is that it’s got a wire leading straight back to somebody’s computer. So it actually gets sort of interesting information back.”

What really excites these guys is the way iTV creates experimental conditions in the home. Your TV will be able to show you one advertisement, monitor how you respond, and then show you something else – working on you over time until it gets the behaviour or change in attitude it wants.

Here Robin Melvyn of European giant NTL speaks with the new vocabulary of home entertainment: “You have to create some control group testing, in effect throw people some placebos. So if we’re trying to increase their spend, or increase their usage or increase their customer satisfaction scores, we’ll take one group and split it down the middle and expose it to two separate batches of data presentation.”

Cracking human personality in real time

Today, if I want to launch a new brand of corn flakes, I have no choice but to shout as loud as I can “Corn Flakes! Come on down folks! Try this great new product!” With iTV, I will not have to say the same thing to everyone. I will not have to say it all at once. I can plan a personalised ‘one-to-one’ launch in your home.

How do you feel about breakfast? How much time do you spend at home before leaving for work? Have any kids? How old are they? Boys or girls? Do they crave more time with you, or more time to themselves? What cartoon characters do they like? Do you let them have TV in their rooms? Who controls the TV remote in your house? Who in your home comes up with new ideas for things to buy? Who makes the purchase decisions? Do those people get along?

Over a period of, say, six months, I will be able to devise a sales strategy based on the information I get from your TV set. My artificial intelligence software will not be launching a product so much as slowly turning you and your family into my loyal customers.

Mark Albert of Alto Consulting does data analysis for digital interactive marketers. He calls ‘cracking human personality in real time’ the ‘ultimate goal’ of behavioural marketing. And iTV is the tool to reach that goal. How is that for empowerment?

Of course, it could be argued that selling cornflakes to individual viewers is a small invasion of civil liberties, or that seeing your favourite pizza toppings in a TV commercial is a tolerable form of oppression. But corn flakes are not the only thing you can sell on TV. What of that last buzzword: democracy?

Vote for me, I’m the [fill blank] candidate!

In their exposé of the public relations industry, Toxic Sludge is Good For You, John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton describe the Christian Coalition of Virginia, a political action group who know better than anyone how to combine technology and politics. The group’s director, Ralph Reed, bragged to a conference of PR executives how the Coalition derailed the career of a liberal politician it did not like.

First they sent out a questionnaire, asking voters in key constituencies what issues they really cared about. For some it was crime; for others it was water quality. Just before election day, Reed’s group sent out election leaflets for their man. One would say, “Vote for me, I’m the CRIME candidate!” The house next door might get a leaflet that said, “Vote for me, I’m the WATER QUALITY candidate!”

By combining market research with individualised messages, the coalition’s candidate beat a popular liberal in a district that had voted democrat for the last 100 years.

This sophisticated control of the electorate is more remarkable for the crudeness of the technology they used. The Coalition had to mail thousands of questionnaires, only a fraction of which would ever be completed and returned. They then mailed thousands of leaflets, only a fraction of which would ever be read. The whole process took months. And if the questions were badly worded, or the leaflets ugly, there was no time for a second chance.

Now think how powerful this technique would be if you could use iTV. Every night’s viewing, over weeks and months, would act like a questionnaire. It would identify the ‘crime fearing’ viewers and the ‘environment loving’ viewers. Personalised TV commercials could be shown every evening, and a group like Reed’s Coalition could analyse each night’s response to those messages. That cycle of ‘stimulus–response–new stimulus’ could be shortened from months to hours, until it hums like an engine, continually shaping viewer attitudes.

Interactive? Yes, very! But is this democracy?

Was the Christian Coalition’s man really ‘the crime candidate’ or ‘the water candidate’? No, not really. Knowledge was power, and Reed’s coalition was able to tell every voter exactly what he or she wanted to hear. Those voters answering their questionnaires did not worry about privacy. They felt they had nothing to hide. Were they right?

People just love to be heard

I asked Marjorie Curtis, another director of Two Way TV, about the people who subscribed to her interactive games channel. Did they not mind their TV sets recording what they did in their own living rooms? Did they not object to answering questions on the screen that became part of some permanent file she held?

“Well,” she answered proudly, “I guess people just love to be heard.” That is a horrifying thought. What she suggests is that people no longer understand the difference between speaking out for themselves and being snooped on.

For years now we have all sat in and watched TV, and felt progressively more helpless and left out of how the world is run. Now this woman comes along and offers us ‘interaction’ and ‘involvement’, using the rhetoric of democracy. It is like walking into a supermarket and the CCTV camera picks you out as the one-millionth person to turn left instead of right, and the supermarket chain renovates all their stores in the country because of it. In one sense, you are extremely powerful. But you exerted no more power than a rat in a maze.

Imagine yourself sitting alone in front of a television that knows everything you desire. And through that box governments and industry race to give you exactly what will make you happy. Is that a perfect model of democracy? Or social control with an individualised smile?

What is this subtle difference:

  • between signing a petition and completing a survey?
  • between making an argument and seducing with pictures?
  • between a political party and a demographic marketing segment?
  • between voting and buying detergent?
  • between action and ‘behaviour’?

Maybe it is just privacy. The citizen needs to tell those in power: “I force you to see what I want, whether you wish to see it or not. And I do not let you see what is none of your business. That is my knowledge to have, my power.”

Democracy requires this fierce protection of our privacy that can never make peace with something like iTV.

And this is what makes Andy Mayer’s article for openDemocracy so depressing. He suggests that political advertising on iTV will promote civic participation. “We already know from early trials,” he writes, “that the exceptionally limited interactivity behind commercial ‘I-ads’ has engaged consumers more deeply and directly with the products being promoted.”

Participation? Engagement? Yes, of course! As viewers, we will take part in and engage with anything they manage to sell us. Public relations men will order up changes in our attitudes as easily as they now call for a pizza. But Mayer is wrong if he thinks this high-tech, sub-lingual brainwashing is the same as public discourse in a democracy.

Interactive TV is the broadcasters’ digital counter-revolution. It was designed 30 years ago as the perfect salesman – a spy in the home – and no amount of buzzwords stolen from the internet will change that.


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