Invasion of the young & pretty

IN THE 1960 CLASSIC “The Time Machine,” a beautiful race of simpleminded people falls into a trance when a horn blares, causing them to march in lockstep like a tranquilized pack of lemmings.

While this was entertaining spectacle as science fiction, it felt a little unsettling to encounter just such a group during May in New York, as media buyers assembled for the major networks’ annual upfront presentations.

Based on my observations, being a media buyer means never having to pay for a meal, and probably never having to say you’re sorry. (That goes for love, too, though saying so historically leads to premature death.)

Each spring, these ravenous herds of well-dressed twenty- and thirtysomethings crisscross Manhattan in pursuit of Jell-O shots and hors d’oeuvres. In exchange, they patiently sit through lengthy dissertations on the networks’ revised lineups, filled with attractive young characters designed to resemble them.

Having pilfered a few free snacks in my day, I am hardly in a position to point fingers in the freeloading department; still, I can at least point to my scribblings as proof that I endeavored to stay awake during these events, which is more than can be said for some of the advertising minions.

Concentrated power

All indications are that consolidation of the agency business has concentrated power over ad-buying decisions in a few hands, making the thousands who crowded into Lincoln Center, Radio City Music Hall and Carnegie Hall all the more suspect. Based on the industry trend, most of the “upfront” could be conducted in a conference room, as top buyers broker nine-figure deals extending across multiple platforms.

Yet if these younger employees lack clout, it’s surely not evident based on the lavish parties that followed each showcase. Indeed, much of the DVD revenue kept fastidiously hidden from the talent guilds is apparently being spent to wine and dine advertising elites, or whoever those people being wined and dined were.

Although I’m not normally the kind to nosh and tell, at Fox’s party in Central Park there was not only free-flowing sushi but also shrimp so enormous that they must have been genetically engineered. Actually, labeling them shrimp seems oxymoronic without some adjective — what comes after “jumbo?” — to frame the conversation.

In similar fashion, bartenders must have been coached in the art of the generous pour, presumably thinking that the drunker people became, the better that preview of the new drama “Head Cases” would look. Based on the mixer-to-alcohol ratios, a novice might assume that Jack Daniels is cheap and ginger ale the equivalent of liquid gold.

For years, networks have pandered to media buyers with programs calibrated to their tastes, and this year is no exception. When the attractive young casts of UPN and WB programs like “Sex, Lies and Secrets” and “Related” took the stage, they must have felt as if they were gazing into a mirror, reflecting them with somewhat less skin on display but better purses and shoes.

Nor are the buyers constrained by any attempt to maintain a poker face. Many lined up to have pictures taken with favorite stars and whooped appreciatively for programs such as Fox’s “Arrested Development” and ABC’s “Lost,” which isn’t the best strategy if, say, you’re negotiating to purchase a condo.

As I moved among them, it was hard not to wonder where they come from, where they live and how they afford those suits. Are they pod people, a la “Invasion of the Body Snatchers?” Should we begin evacuating towns before everyone awakens talking enthusiastically about demos and psychographics, the latest episode of HBO’s “Entourage” and a sale at Prada? And how many people does it require to schmooze a brand manager at Procter & Gamble, anyway?

Nevertheless, the media world is dancing to their tune, despite wheezing gasps from an old guard that includes the Los Angeles Times editorial page, which decried the emphasis on the 18-to-49 demographic last week under the headline, “Grow Up, TV Advertisers.” Such arguments would have more credibility, alas, if newspaper editors and execs hadn’t repeatedly stressed the need to entice those younger readers in order to secure their own futures.

No, as with another sci-fi creation, I suspect the frightening truth is that like the Borg, resistance is futile. In fact, the easiest solution might be to simply surrender, go to sleep and hope that when my eyes finally reopen, I can be one of them.

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