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A startup gave me a ‘free’ 55-inch TV in exchange for my data. Is this the future?

A TV displays an ad, sunlight casting shadows in the room with a plant to the left and the edge of a chair to the right.
A OneMedical ad pops up on the main screen of a TV set provided by Telly, a startup promising a free television in exchange for user data. | Source: Joshua Bote/The Standard

A Los Angeles-based startup by the name of Telly came in hot last year with a Faustian bargain: The company would give you a free 55-inch TV in exchange for the privilege of serving you nonstop ads and accessing (and probably selling) your viewing data. 

It was a pitch that generated tons of noise and skepticism. The trade-off, many observers rightfully reasoned, did not seem worth it. Why let a Trojan horse of a TV into your house when serviceable 55-inch sets now sell for a few hundred bucks?

And yet, the idea was still seductive enough to around 500,000 suckers—myself included. Colleagues and friends alike had chastised me for being so brazen with my data. But I signed up in May, thinking the service would probably flop before it could ship out even a single TV. Part of that sign-up process required filling out a focus group-type survey: demographic information, shopping habits, the whole shebang. I also had to provide my credit card information—a large red flag.

Months went by, and I forgot about it. So imagine my surprise when, in November, two delivery men dropped off a hulking box containing “the future of TV” at my apartment door.

The Future of TV

Telly was founded by Ilya Pozin, the guy who co-founded Pluto TV—the (now Paramount-owned) free streaming service whose logo you may have seen pop up after accidentally sitting on your smart TV remote. (I have used Pluto for one reason: to watch Frasier reruns.) His logic, at least in marketing materials, resembles a sort of Robin Hood of data collection.

“Companies are making billions of dollars from ads served on televisions, yet consumers have historically had to pay for both the TV and the content they watch,” he said in a launch statement. “All of that changes today.”

A photo of a Green Giant advertisement on a Telly TV. A man in overalls, a flannel and a cap is seen carrying a basket of vegetables
A Green Giant ad pops up on the default screen of a TV set provided by Telly. | Source: Joshua Bote/The Standard

Consumers are well-versed by now in trading user data for a service or convenience they value. Facebook is free, but its entire model relies on it tracking your every digital move to serve you hyper-customized ads; Amazon’s Alexa voice devices listen to you to dish up ads on its devices and across the internet. Pozin figures you might as well get a free TV out of the deal.

The pitch worked for investors, too. He secured seed funding in the “nine figures,” according to previous reports, by looping in the likes of business influencer Gary Vaynerchuk and media analyst Rich Greenfield. 

I admit, when I unboxed the TV, I felt the slight satisfaction of someone who had gamed the system. Here was a free, big-screen television just sitting on the side of my bedroom. (Technically, you’re supposed to use the Telly TV in your living room, but putting it in my sleeping quarters felt like a meek act of sticking it to the man.)

About the unbranded TV itself, which Pozin says is valued at $1,000: It’s a 55-inch 4K HDR (high dynamic range) screen—definitely good enough to watch YouTube or 30 Rock reruns on Hulu. It comes with a soundbar and a webcam with a physical cover built-in. LED strips attached in the back flare a color of your choice; mine emanates a bright blue. It is also heavy, weighing in at an astonishing 65 pounds.

At the base of the television is Telly’s key differentiator—a second screen. It’s about a foot high and displays widgets for news and weather and a menu to change inputs and other settings.

And, there’s an ad that sits on the screen at all times. It’s about as intrusive as a banner ad on any given website, except for when the ad stretches out to fill the entire screen—like a nightmarish pop-up you can’t X away from. (NFL Shop, I’m looking at you.) You could theoretically conceal the ad with a sheet of fabric or paper, but it is not all too obtrusive when it’s not full-screen. 

Telly, for all its grand marketing, didn’t revolutionize my TV-watching habits. I watched more Food Network before bed and YouTube during my morning routine, which likely means that all Telly got from me was that I like Guy Fieri, Pokémon and sitcoms. But whatever data broker who has access to my Facebook and X marketing intel probably already knows that.

Invasions of Privacy

The Telly logo can be seen in close up
The Telly logo appears on the top of a TV set provided by the company. | Source: Joshua Bote/The Standard

Once you turn Telly on, you have to move fast to switch inputs to your streaming device—lest you get bombarded with a blaring ad for a hotel or laundry detergent. It also won’t turn automatically to your streaming device, a feature that comes built-in on 99% of dumb TVs sold in the past few years. (Other complaints abounded on the Telly subreddit, including, but not limited to, glitched-out sound, nonfunctional voice recognition, persistent ads and no ads at all. I have yet to encounter any of these.)

Telly’s TV comes with Spotify and Zoom built-in, but lacks most other popular apps, so you have to use a third-party dongle to watch 95% of the streaming content you want to consume. It also comes with a built-in tuner. The Telly-provided dongle went haywire for me, so I bought a $20 streaming box from Walmart. That worked, but now my Telly TV has cost me $20. 

The TV has a webcam built in, but Telly says it doesn’t use it to watch you watching Telly. (The camera, it says, is so you can use the built-in Zoom app). 

So what does Telly record? 

Aside from the wealth of digital information it amasses while I tune in, the TV’s privacy policy notes that it “has a motion sensor” for energy efficiency (what?) and “to infer the size of the audience watching content/ads on the Telly Device” (gulp!). 

The amount of data it collects and sends to its “business partners,” like Nielsen and Microsoft’s advertising arm, is staggering: Geolocation data, internet “network activity information,” “professional or employment-related information” and “education information.” 

Sure, other data collectors likely already possess this data—I am a human with an active social media presence, after all—but to have it on the screen that I arguably spend most of my focused time on is more rattling than I had thought when I ordered it in the first place.

“The value of your personal information is reasonably related to the value of the Telly Device and experience we provide to you,” the privacy policy says. And now that Pozin, Telly’s CEO, is promising to serve up more ways for users to buy stuff on the TV itself, the deal feels increasingly fraught.

The only way to stop using the TV is to send it back, as disposing of it in any other way violates Telly’s terms of service, and allows the company to charge your credit card. I just may—if only it weren’t so heavy.