Groucho Marx, himself a tenured professor at the Cathode Ray School of Higher Learning, also weighed in: "I find television very educational. Every time someone switches it on, I go in the other room and read a good book."
These days, kids don't go in the other room to read a book. They go in the other room -- or to a desk in the same room -- to switch on a PC. Once there, they engage in real-time chats similar to the following, which comes courtesy of Jeff Morris, CEO of Yack.com, who walked into his daughter's room during this instant message dialogue between her and a friend (screen names have been altered).
BabyKJ 10777: Hey Sup?
BabyK 10777: S/H
Cuddllls22: O, G/G, POS, brb
BabyK 10777: Ok, C ya L8R
Confused? Here's the translation:
BabyK 10777: Hi. What's up?
Cuddllls22: Not much, you?
BabyK 10777: Same here.
Cuddllls22: Oh, gotta go. Parent looking over shoulder. Be right back.
BabyK 10777: OK, see you later.
That kids are continually inventing their own cyberlanguage is amusing, but not particularly threatening. The nightmare for marketers comes in a few years, when Baby K and Cuddllls are watching "Amanda's Angst," the next hot new series on the WB. During the commercial break, instead of watching the ad for New Line Cinema's "Another Heather Graham Movie," they'll be busy gossiping about Amanda's problems in an instant-message dialogue displayed right on the TV screen.
While prognostication is a dangerous business, it's hard to deny we're on the cusp of a significant transformation of media, most dramatically underscored by the switch from an analog to a digital world.
In the coming years, viewers will be faced with scores of additional viewing options. Local TV stations will add narrowly focused digital channels on topics such as local weather. Since the broadcast networks own a large number of local TV stations, these niche channels will be their answer to specialized cable channels, which also will continue to proliferate.
Throw in the challenges and opportunities of convergence, and it's clear why plenty of folks on Madison Avenue are nervous.
"We're in real danger of being blindsided by the digital revolution," said Alec Gerster, chairman of MediaCom Worldwide, Grey Advertising's media subsidiary. "The industry isn't really paying attention."
When Mr. Gerster started in the ad business 25 years ago, Look still competed with Life and the ban on TV advertising of cigarettes was still fresh. Changes during the next quarter-century were relatively gradual, so marketers and agencies had no problem keeping up. But "what concerns me about this digital revolution is that so much can change so quickly," Mr. Gerster says today.
One of the ad world's most vexing challenges focuses on the power of the "gatekeeper." Currently, broadcast and cable networks send out commercials with their shows, and the cable operator or local TV station affiliate passes them through to viewers. In the digital world, it's primarily the cable operator -- and satellite dish programmer -- in control of addressability and interactivity.
"Are the cable system guys going to be the gatekeepers for addressable and interactive advertising? A lot of that has to be negotiated," said Steve Heyer, president-chief operating officer of Time Warner's Turner Broadcasting System. "Depending upon what you believe about contract and who owns the audience, some of this could be pretty contentious."
Clearly, the model being worked on has cable system operators investing in an infrastructure that will allow them to, in Mr. Heyer's words, "slice and dice their audience" in ways marketers will find very attractive.
What will make the slicing and dicing possible is the information cable operators will be able to get from digital set-top boxes in their customers' homes. That data, which can give the cable operator literally a second-by-second account of subscribers' viewing habits, will be combined with other database information on demographics and buying habits for the ultimate in one-to-one communications.
"We can move from selling the audience we think is there to selling the audience we know is there to selling the behavior of the audience we think is there to actually making sales," said Mr. Heyer, who dubs the process "datafusion."
This assumes, of course, that networks can get the commercials into viewers' homes. The digital revolution introduces other possibilities that present headaches for marketers, including getting viewers to watch commercials at all. One problem is that other options, such as the instant messaging that our friends Baby K and Cuddllls like to do, could interfere with commercial messages. The rise of so-called personal video recorders may also give consumers the ability to zap ads.
Certainly it is neither in programmers' nor distributors' interest to kill the golden goose of advertising. Leo Hindrey, president-CEO of AT&T Internet & Broadband Services, said he will not allow software that zaps commercials into his set-top boxes.
But there may be new revenue streams tapped that increase the likelihood of commercial-free programming. Prime-time ad revenue for the major broadcast networks currently averages about 24¢ per hour per home. But imagine a scenario in which a significant number of viewers agree to pony up $1 to watch their favorite sitcom without commercials. The question is whether enough people are willing to do that often enough to make ad-free, pay-per-view network programming economically feasible.
As the price of making a phone call and accessing the Internet falls, the belief is that consumers will be willing to pay more for entertainment options, including commercial-free TV.
So a salesman will be able to come home after a business trip and bark, "I wanna watch 'Muffin, the Buffy Slayer,' " and the voice recognition device in his set-top box will answer, "Recorded last night. Free with commercials or $2 without interruption?"
"Maybe you'll answer, 'With commercials, but only ones about jeans,' " because you're looking for a new pair, said Mr. Brennan.
A marketer will gladly deliver a jeans spot on demand, knowing the viewer is likely to buy jeans the next day. Combine that with the ability to instantly call up and purchase products on the Internet, and you've got an incredibly efficient and effective one-two punch.
This level of technical sophistication will call for an incredibly complex operation for the delivery, trafficking and post analysis of spots. But media executives are convinced it is the future.
And much of it will come sooner than you think. Mr. Hindrey insists the distribution of digital set-top boxes will be fairly widespread in just a few years.
Of course, the Procter & Gambles and Unilevers of the world still will need to sell paper towels and toothpaste. And they'll want consumers -- even unplugged consumers -- to know about their newest line extension. But viewers aren't likely to ask for those commercials, so the megamarketers will be forced to market to them through other media platforms and disciplines.
The true impact of the digital revolution is the change in who's in charge of the marketing communications process.
Three decades ago, baby boomers were warned by "The Outer Limits," a sci-fi series: "There is nothing wrong with your television set. We control the vertical. We control the horizontal."