The soothsaying was an outgrowth of a discussion between Sue Unerman, Chief Strategy Officer for MediaCom in the U.K., and Gerhard Zeiler, the CEO of the RTL Group, which operates 40 channels in 10 countries.
In TV, the adage is viewers watch programs, not networks. MediaCom raises the issue of whether that extends to the digital realm.
CBS has carved out an ID as a place for procedural crime dramas. Fox has for gone for an edgier persona. But by nature, with their diverse programs, broadcasters struggle to develop a brand. An identification strong enough to attract viewers flipping on the TV and unaware of what is on.
Cable has the flipped paradigm. Viewers may begin by checking out the Food Network, ESPN or MTV.
How does that translate online? Advantage cable by one metric -- broadcast by another. Cable networks may have a leg up with surfers, broadcasters with viewers.
With defined branding, surfers would seem more likely to visit a CableNetwork.com. But others, clearly go straight to an NBC.com or CBS.com to watch a missed episode of a favorite show.
Over time, cable networks may settle in with more unique visitors on digital platforms, but broadcasters will garner more time spent.
One thing is clear, among the fickle generation of 12-to-24 year-olds, sparking brand excitement presents a massive challenge -- even among cable channels. MediaCom notes this is the first generation to be "weaned on unlimited digital content."
"Channel brands - call it brands, call it habits, I don't care -- are powerful," says RTL's Zeiler in MediaCom's report. "In a digital world, with thousands of alternatives, you need guidance and channel brands can deliver that."
Michael Neal, who works for MediaCom in Canada, suggests that digital brand-building will only become more "crucial" as viewing on iPads and tablets take off. ABC gets a first-mover advantage with its focus on the iPad, but all networks should emphasize offering engaging experiences before YouTube emerges as a first stop.
That beachhead concept will also accelerate as Internet-connected TVs proliferate. But while 7% of TVs in the U.K. are synched with the Web, according to MediaCom, and the hardware may become more available, programming may come much slower.
Regarding Google TV, MediaCom says with "the actual and perceived damage done to newspapers by Google News weigh(ing) heavily" - networks are wary.
"I am not at all concerned about Google. Why?" Zeiler said. "Because we will only put our brands and our contents (on) certain platforms under (certain) conditions."
MediaCom also notes one of the most vexing issues for networks with online video: measurement. Networks want - and Nielsen has indicated it can provide - a sturdy system aggregating viewing on-air and online.
But a Nielsen system hardly means buyers and sellers will agree on a currency. Is an ad for Comfort Inn during a stream of "30 Rock" worth the same as a spot for the hotel chain in "30 Rock" on TV?
That difficult evaluation could lead to a commercial that keeping a lesser commercial load online is smart. While an NBC.com viewer may switch to NYT.com during an ad, she will continue to listen to the spot to know when to switch back. But that chance of her listening intently, which gives an advertiser a type of audio exposure -- declines if there is a TV-style pod with five ads.
Separately regarding the simultaneous use of TV and a laptop, many people watch and use social media. MediaCom cites an Intel statistic saying that in the U.K. during "I'm a Celebrity" and "X Factor," 54% of those watching on TV say they are using social media to communicate about them.
"Advertisers need to be more holistic in their appreciation of live TV events to take advantage of the social media opportunities that key live shows may offer," MediaCom said.
Clearly, programmers and advertisers need to hope Twitter comes up with a viable ad model ASAP.