Report: Firms tracking viewers' habits to tailor TV ads

Cable, satellite and technology firms are increasingly tracking households' TV viewing habits with an eye toward helping advertisers target their commercials more effectively, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal.

According to the report, firms such as Cablevision are already rolling out systems that can show different commercials to different households watching the same program. The U.S. Army reportedly used the system to deliver recruitment ads to families apparently based on viewers' ethnicity.

The changes come at a time when tracking consumers' behavior online is an increasingly controversial subject and faces several legislative efforts aimed at protecting the public's privacy. Most of the firms cited in the article claim they do not share user data with third parties.

In some cases the data is cross-referenced with a broad array of other household data in hopes of determining what type of people watch a certain show. Those involved in TV targeting claim it is less intrusive than online tracking because it focuses on a household or TV set, not individuals.

Pay-TV firms are also subject to the Cable Act of 1984 and a related rule for satellite providers, which ban them from sharing subscriber names and addresses tied to viewing information without their permission. There is no current law that specifically governs Web tracking.