Have you ever wondered why brand-new televisions with massive, bright, and vivid screens are so cheap these days? It’s all about the ads. Once relegated to the cheapest televisions, owners of LG’s flagship CX line are now discovering that they, too, are enjoying unprompted advertising on their television sets, according to a report from The Verge.
The Verge’s Chris Welch was updating streaming apps on his television when an ad popped up and played with sound in the corner of his screen without a way to skip it or stop it. It was a short one, but a pop-up, hover-over ad all the same. Other users on Twitter and Reddit have noticed the same behavior, so this doesn’t appear to be an isolated occurrence. What’s new about this is that the LG CX television Welch witnessed the ad on is one of the brand’s upper-middle range televisions, the ones that users buy for a premium experience. Every smart TV has ads to some degree, but this a step beyond ads showing up in the corner of the app browser or input menu.
A 2019 interview by The Verge with Vizio Chief Technology Officer Bill Baxter does a good job of explaining this. “This is a cutthroat industry. It’s a 6% margin industry. The greater strategy is I really don’t need to make money off of the TV. I need to cover my cost,” Baxter said. “It’s not just about data collection, it’s about post-purchase monetization of the TV.”
Companies like LG, Vizio, and others, can sell us televisions like these because they’re selling them at a razor-thin margin that, on its own, would make it difficult for a company to stay in business. Baxter says that without ads, Vizio would “collect a little bit more margin at retail to offset it.” In other words, you’d pay more at the register for the television.
There are a few things that we, as consumers, can do to offset these, though doing so can become especially difficult with the growing prevalence of TVs powered by Roku’s operating system. You could look for a non-smart television–one with a stock on-screen display that serves up only information like you input and configuration information. These are getting increasingly more difficult to find, and are often not on the bleeding edge of technology. If you’re looking for a 65-inch UltraHD television with DolbyVision HDR, and HDMI 2.1 compatibility to pair with your new gaming console, you might be out of luck if ads are a dealbreaker. It’s much easier to find smaller, lower-resolution televisions.
If you want the latest tech in your TV, you’re stuck buying a smart TV. The most effective defense against ads is to simply never connect the television to the internet. Most smart TVs have USB ports and allow for offline software updates over USB, and an unconnected television can’t serve up ads. Instead of using the built-in apps to access Netflix and Disney+, you can connect something like an AppleTV box, or an Nvidia Shield and enjoy your apps through that, rather than the television menu.
If you absolutely have to connect that big, bright rectangle to the internet, the next easiest step is to look at your TV settings and check any boxes to disable (or reduce) tracking and the microphone so that, at the very least, the ads you see don’t feel quite so creepy.
If you’re a bit more technically-inclined, you can also put something between the television and the internet to mitigate ad serving. A Reddit thread from 2019 still has great information about blocking common ad sources. You can also buy a Raspberry Pi computer and configure it with network-wide ad-blocking software called Pi-Hole. While that will help, it seems some smart TVs are finding ways around this.
Of course, this is all out the window once these manufacturers decide to cram a cellular radio into their TVs right next to the wireless and Bluetooth radios so that they can pull ads without even touching our routers and internet connections, though no manufacturer has yet announced such plans.