How will the consumer respond? What place will there be for advertising on this new medium? What impact will it have on existing media?
Ad agencies, searching for their own role and trying to assist clients, react in different ways. Some assign a point-person, others create task forces and still others do little more than keep a wary eye on developments.
During a speech, the head of one leading agency urges the industry to experiment: "The courage of agencies to change long-established habits and procedures and to get wet all over .*.*. is, in my opinion, the index to the strength of the advertising agency business in the future."
The time is the present and the subject is interactive media, right? Wrong. The time is the late 1940s, and the issue is a new medium called TV. The speaker: none other than Leo Burnett, who purchased TV sets for his top executives and encouraged clients to buy home sets to experience the new medium's power for themselves.
The similarities between the early days of TV and the current stages of interactive media development are striking. Some observers view it as part of a natural business cycle.
"All radically new technologies are met with huge skepticism. This was true about television and it's true about interactive media," says George Gilder, author of "Life After Television." "The people who've learned the old technology are afraid to learn something new. People's knowledge is really their resource."
Others see it as being indicative of ad agencies' underlying fear of the unknown and unwillingness to encourage clients to take risks.
"The safest thing to do always is to say no, and then you're covered," notes Les Brown, a consultant and critic who covered TV's formative years for Variety and The New York Times and wrote "Encyclopedia of Television." "If the answer is yes and it doesn't work, the client will say, `What did you get me into?'*"
It's clear some things never change.
Today, with passive TV a dominant force in people's lives, many question whether viewers will want to interact with TV, or whether they'll want to sit in front of a computer screen to do tasks, such as banking and shopping, they now do outside the home.
Part of what drew marketers to TV in the early days, despite their fears-and is drawing some of them to interactive services today-was the belief that early adopters to new technologies represent more desirable affluent, educated consumers.
Radio was such a predominant factor in people's media consumption habits immediately after World War II that few believed it could be eclipsed by TV or anything else.
The strength of radio-and another entrenched medium, print-made advertisers reluctant to test the TV waters.
"Advertisers felt TV was going to be great, but, `It's not for me right now. It's too limited, too expensive, a novelty.' And they put it off," says Milton Sutton, who in the '50s was creative director for Zlowe Co., first agency for Dannon yogurt.
Eugene Kummel, chairman emeritus of McCann-Erickson Worldwide, agrees, saying that advertisers "were reluctant to give up the efficiency of radio and print until they were absolutely sure [TV] was coming."
"I think the same thing is happening today," adds Mr. Sutton.
Naysayers who question whether advertising will be part of the interactive media equation should remember E.F. McDonald Jr., who as president of Zenith Radio Corp. told Advertising Age in 1945 that TV "will never make a material bid for the advertiser's dollar."
Newsweek Vice Chairman Don Durgin, who began selling spot time for NBC-TV in 1949 and served as NBC president from 1966 to 1973, believes marketers are wiser today.
"Nobody's pooh-poohing interactivity," he says, like they did TV. "They're simply saying nobody knows how to place the bets on how all of this will come out."
The question now is whether interactive media will ever have as profound an impact as did the birth of TV.
Mr. Durgin says no.
"Television was absolutely revolutionary. The beauty of [TV] advertising was you could take a low-interest commodity product and make it dramatic and compelling to the average person. [Interactive] is more targeting, more selectivity. It's simply a refinement of TV."
Mr. Gilder disagrees. The interactive media revolution "is just as big a change as the change from radio to TV," he says. "This is the birth of a new medium that will subsume the old medium."
Ken Auletta, author of the network TV tome "Three Blind Mice" and now new-media correspondent for The New Yorker, says the overriding issue today is whether interactive technologies will open up new opportunities for TV as we know it, or lead to the death of the boob tube. "You're jumping off a cliff and you don't know if your bungee cord is connected or not."