Friday, April 1, 2011

Less Insight a Good Thing

Our local cable TV conglomerate, Insight Communications, has now 'provided' us with a new problem--the little TV 'mini-boxes' that now sit on our sets.

Insight ostensibly provided them to us, to allow us to watch the new digital broadcast standard on our older, analog TVs--to 'ease' us into the digital transition.

The mini-boxes have MAC ID addresses on them.  Any kind of hardware with a MAC ID is made to be 'trackable' from the 'other end'--the provider, whether cable TV, broadband, or phone, can thereby track your user habits.  Items with these are 'always-on'--you don't turn them off.  To the company, this means they can always say they're providing you with 'better advertising', not necessarily 'more'.

How so?  Let's use a simple model to provide some real 'insight' into this oft-released statement.

Let's say that even just two people are watching a show on mini-boxes.  Insight is tracking both viewers' mini-boxes from their end, providing themselves useful data on things such as how often both users try to skip commercials, turning away from the channel they're viewing, turning back after they think the commercial break may end.

Well, that's easy to tell--let's say, to more easily visualize this example, one viewer is male, the other female.  The show might be something both sexes commonly view--'Dancing with the Stars', or even just the nightly local news.  Everybody hates commercials, but let's say the female viewer is being more patient, not turning away during the commercials, while the male is.  Now, she may even understand the recent change, that basically, Insight really is watching her viewing habits (at least not watching her...yet).

The male viewer, on the other hand, is constantly switching, hard to track his habits, so perhaps a little more trouble to program advertising for in the future.  That's okay, it's now easier for Insight to track him.  Since their system is computerized, and now, a digital network, it's not too hard to track any of the commercials the male will sit through, he may end up seeing more ads for male-oriented products during his regular TV sessions in the future anyway.

The woman, who 'patiently' sat through all types of commercials, may end up seeing all of the same ones in the future.  She may end up becoming more 'impatient' and begin flipping through channels herself.  Or, Insight may also use the personal information they have for her as an account holder to program commercials for her.

That's assuming the mini-boxes also allow Insight to throw out two different commercials to two different viewers at the same time.  If not, then Insight might use their collected data to simply track the type of products sold in the commercials most often watched, and just put more of those types of commericals in at the times they were watched, and on the channels watched.

Regardless, it may be the best Insight can do--we, as regular viewers, wouldn't know, because 'they're not telling'.  I'm not paranoid about it--I don't think they have mini cameras in them, I know they're not doing anything intentionally malicious about it either.  Simply put--they may have finally found a way to 'cater' the 'necessary evil' of commercials to our general interests.  They may have perfected this idea right away; they may need time to correctly use the data, and there may even be a few unforeseen 'bumps in the road' in our collective viewing futures.

The one characteristic of this new hardware that remains overall is the somewhat neutral aspect I mentioned in the last paragraph--that it really ends up being a 'necessary evil' for us if we're conscious of our viewing habits, and progressive about it as consumers at all.