Roku TVs now track what you watch to suggest streams, target ads
They scan what you're watching on cable to suggest streaming sources like Netflix and Amazon, and to make ads more relevant. And yes, you can turn it off.
Roku TVs are CNET's favorite entry-level televisions, with the best built-in streaming platform on the planet and good-enough picture quality for the price.
I also love how they keep getting updated with new features and functionality, such as a recent add-on that lets antenna users pause live TV, no DVR required (seriously, it's pretty cool) and listen to TV audio privately using headphones connected to a smartphone.
But the latest update gives me pause. Its biggest feature is something called More Ways To Watch. Here's how Roku describes it.
The TV can recognize the show or movie you're watching on a connected cable box, satellite box or antennas using Automatic Content Recognition (ACR) technology, and suggest additional viewing options via streaming. Those options may include the ability to watch from the beginning, watch more episodes of the same show and/or view suggestions for similar entertainment available to stream.
So if you're watching an episode of "Friends" via the cable box, an option appears onscreen reminding you that you can also stream it via Netflix, Amazon or Hulu. There's also an option to watch the same episode from the beginning, or check out related shows like (I'm guessing here) "Seinfeld" or "Joey."
I haven't tested the feature yet, but at first blush it sounds functional yet potentially annoying -- I don't really want a pop-up to appear when I'm watching a show. And I'm wary of anything that uses ACR, the same technology Samsung, LG, Vizio and others employ to track what you watch on their Smart TVs. Roku, for the record, has previously targeted ads by tracking your streaming habits, but this is the first time it's used ACR.
I asked Roku how its new system benefits advertisers. "It helps them reach their target audience based on what they are already seeing on their screen," a representative replied via email. "For example, if an ad promoting a car brand runs in a program over the air, we have the capability to deliver an ad showing a local dealership that gives the consumer more relevant information and a call to action, including a 'click to find out more' where they can discover more about the models or can text a number to find out more about promotions."
Yes, you can turn it off
Earlier this year Vizio was slapped with a $2.2 million fine by the FTC for failing to properly disclose how it shares its tracking information. The issue wasn't that it used ACR, but that it failed to tell consumers enough about it. Roku, one of Vizio's biggest competitors in the budget smart TV market, isn't making that same mistake.
Once the update hits your current Roku TV, or during the setup process for a new one, you'll be required to opt in to use More Ways to Watch. And the onscreen explanation is pretty clear:
Roku says users can also choose to disable the feature anytime by clicking an item in the menu.
Beyond More Ways to Watch, the new update adds a couple of minor features, including the ability to create a favorites list of over-the-air antenna channels (but no grid guide yet) and to rename inputs to whatever you want. Thumbnail images also pop up during pause, rewind and fast-forward after you pause live TV.
The new Roku TV software update (version 7.6) is being rolled out to existing Roku TVs now, all the way back to the original models from 2014. It will also appear on all new 2017 Roku TVs, like the P series and C series 4K models. The one exception is 2016 4K Roku TV models, which get everything in the 7.6 update except More Ways to Watch, which will arrive this summer.