What if you only watched the commercials you really wanted to watch?

For any couch potato -- or rather, for any shrewd critic surveying popular culture in high-definition from the upholstered perch in their study -- this would be fantastic news.

For an investor, it could be even bigger. Say you snagged early on the stock of the company that finally eliminated the enforced viewings of vapid ads. That would surely finance an early retirement, not to mention subsequent years of critical studies of popular culture that would follow.

For a flickering moment a few years ago, it seemed that

TiVo

(TIVO) - Get Report

would be just that company. Ad execs would gather at conferences and fret about how a single button on the TiVo remote control would spell the end of the 30-second commercial. That kind of thinking drove TiVo's stock up as high as $14.51 in July 2003.

But TiVo's stock has since dropped below $6, in part because cable companies like

Comcast

(CMCSA) - Get Report

matched TiVo's offerings with video-on-demand, and also because it became clear that Madison Avenue would continue to push their 30-second spots down our gullets.

Think of it: The advertising folks are smart; they aren't like

Darrin Stephens fumbling pitches at McMann & Tate; they know you hate the stuff they shovel your way. If they could create a commercial that wouldn't inspire you to skip ahead 30 seconds, change the channel or hit the mute button, but that would instead make you feel you

wanted

to watch it, they'd be thrilled.

In the past couple of weeks, it's become clear that the dream of the seductive commercial is not only still alive but closer than ever. And the players in the race to deliver on that promise are also becoming clearer.

Ironically, TiVo itself is a candidate to win the prize, if a dark horse one at this point. The reason is that while bigger companies can easily catch up with TiVo's basic technology of recording TV programming onto a hard drive, they simply haven't been able to match its spirit of innovation.

Last month, TiVo took an interesting step toward watch-worthy commercials by announcing Product Watch, which according to TiVo CEO Tom Rogers "will, for the first time, enable TV viewers to get commercial information about a product they are interested

in, when they want it, rather than through traditional TV advertising, where a viewer has no control of what ad comes on when they are watching a program."

TiVo is already lining up big advertisers such as

General Motors

(GM) - Get Report

,

Kraft

(KFT)

and

Sony's

(SNE) - Get Report

Sony Pictures unit, as well as ad shops such as

Interpublic

(IPG) - Get Report

,

MindShare

and

OMD

. The idea is to offer commercials longer than 30 seconds that would show new features on GM cars or cooking-show recipes with Kraft ingredients.

OK, you may not go for those brands, but you might like to see an extended preview of a new Sony Pictures movie -- which film buffs do every day on the Web. For maybe the first time, it puts the onus on companies to create spots viewers have an incentive to watch.

Blurring the line between entertainment and advertising has been going on for some time, but largely with results few are thrilled with. People endure product placements in reality TV shows and movies because they are harder to avoid. But programs such as ABC's

Lost

have started to sneak clues into fake ads that are sprinkled in with the real ones, prompting viewers to think twice before skipping forward.

CBS

(CBS) - Get Report

and

Time Warner's

(TWX)

America Online

are working with reality-TV producer Mark Burnett to create a treasure-hunt program called

Gold Rush

that will feature clues in commercials, which viewers will presumably need to actually see to decipher them.

Such approaches are small steps toward a time when viewers will be craving commercials. A more comprehensive approach is developing on the Internet, notably by

Google

(GOOG) - Get Report

. The Internet search giant has been studying how to target people with ads not on the basis of their demographics -- the crude hatchet that matches commercials with TV programs -- but according to their behavior, a more scalpel-like approach emerging on the Web.

Google's Adwords blog recently said the company is starting to play with click-to-watch video ads that will appear on sites much like the sponsored-ad links do today. The video ads are still somewhat primitive and crude, but consider: Many people using Google's search engine automatically click on the sponsored links in the blue banner just above the natural search results. Most aren't aware that these links are ads.

Now if Google -- or

Yahoo!

(YHOO)

, for that matter, which has a deeper understanding of the online-video format as well as deeper relationships with major advertisers -- can make video ads just as desirable as the sponsored link ads are in Google's search results, it could have a profound effect not only on advertisers but on the way consumers think about ads. And as the TV/Internet convergence continues, it could eventually transform television advertising.

These are all big ifs. But the momentum is pushing the ad industry away from forcing people to watch ads they hate and toward targeting viewers with ads they'd be eager to watch.

The winner is likely to be a company founded in the past dozen years. I wouldn't bet on a networking or cable giant, which simply lack the innovative cultures necessary, or even

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

, which although it's ahead in merging the PC with the TV, is lacking in ad savvy. Instead, I'd favor Google or Yahoo! to pull it off first. But if TiVo can overcome its problems, it may surprise everyone.

Yes, it sounds odd to think that someday we'll actually sit down and say, "Hmm, I think I'll watch a TV commercial." But that day is closer than you may think.