Frugal: The New Cool

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Disney-ABC Television Group chief Anne Sweeney popped in and out of Las Vegas last week, and like most things she does, she did it in style.

She flew into town and was feted at the Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Awards Monday night, at which she was called a combination of “brains, beauty and television genius” by the elegant Lilly Tartikoff, whose late husband, Brandon, was remembered.

Sweeney was then introducedfondly by affable Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry, before coming to the stage to accept her honor with a warm speech and then head off to a post-awards dinner for honorees.

The next morning at the National Association of Television Program Executives show, she joined me on stage before a packed room for a keynote chat in which she thoughtfully laid out the challenges we are all facing, and thoughts on how we might get through them.

She even gracefully passed when I suggested that she could help the business by going back in time and killing the people who would go on to invent TiVo, a la the Terminator storyline.

But what stuck out most was when we were backstage talking about heading home. Was she heading right to the tarmac in her limo to jump on the private jet, slump into a lavish couch and eat lobster tail while getting a massage on the flight?

Uh, no. She was boasting about having a coupon for a free drink on her Southwest Airlines flight. And that the folks at NATPE were kind enough to have given her a free hotel room, so her company didn't have to pay for that, either.

If Anne Sweeney is a trendsetter, both in business and business fashion, then it is officially confirmed: Frugal is the new cool. Gone are the days when we boast about how much we spent on that bottle of wine at that “business” dinner last night or how much that last-minute first-class seat cost.

You want to one-up your friends in the industry today? You do it by telling them how much you saved.

Tales of money savings were rampant among the major television business players who attended NATPE. When I checked in at the Mandalay Bay hotel, one media company exec bragged that he landed a suite for what you'd expect to pay for a Motel 6 if you got tired driving between Milwaukee and Green Bay.

Even name tags were smaller this year for CBS execs at their NATPE booth. Hey, every dollar counts.

And if indeed frugal (a nice way of saying cheap) is the new cool, then suddenly I am the hippest guy in the room. I feel like it is OK to admit that despite my hair obviously looking like it is coiffed at a high-end Beverly Hills salon, it is actually my wife who (grudgingly) cuts what's left of it. And I mean really grudgingly.My version of getting “lucky” at home means she agrees to pull out the clippers.

I also can reveal something about the typical uniform I wear to work every day: nice jeans, un-tucked collared shirt and a jacket. A fashion plate like me (poor Anne Sweeney must have been so intimidated being on stage next to me) clearly looks like he only dines on shopping sprees at Beverly Hills boutiques. It is, however, more a diet of the outlet malls you have to schlep 40 miles (or six hours in Los Angeles traffic) to get to.

NATPE 2009 was a perfect microcosm of this new trend in the business. Gone are the days of the King brothers' lavish affairs, now replaced with an economical cocktail hour here and there.

It makes sense at a time when we are all forced to make brutal decisions and see incredibly talented people being let go from jobs at which they were often quite successful. And as this new trend has surfaced, the new boasting has also taken hold.

The days of exchanging stories about lavish perks and swanky affairs are so early-2008. You want to impress people? Tell them how cheap you really are.

If the elegant Anne Sweeney is doing it, so should you.

E-mail comments toben.grossman@reedbusiness.com

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