Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Nielson Ratings

UPDATE: the blogosphere debate on this subject has been growing over at Matthew Freeman's blog. Check out the comments section. Good stuff.

I guess my main options for blogging today can be about either Mel Gibson or this story in the New York Times about Nielsen National Research Group (a corporate cousin of Nielsen's television-rating unit) and Broadway.com creating a new way to market Broadway shows. New, that is, for Broadway. The method in question is not too different from the way Hollywood has been marketing its movies for decades.

Since this is, I guess, mainly a theatre blog, I guess I'm going with the latter (although I could go for the third option of plugging my upcoming free sketch comedy show, but I suppose that could wait until tomorrow).

This is what's happening:

"Using Hollywood-style data mining techniques and the Internet to contact hundreds of thousands of theatergoers, Live Theatrical Events [the partnership between Nielson and Broadway.com] is changing the way shows are marketing themselves, on and off Broadway. And its managing director, Joseph Craig, who has a long history in the film industry, is quietly becoming a sought-after player in New York theater."

Yes, in effect, Broadway has brought in the Nielson Ratings that we know for TV to find out how to maximize profits.

My initial reaction: gross.

My reaction after thinking about it for longer than 30 seconds: feh.

I'm not without sympathy, nor am I particularly surprised. Since Broadway shows are so damn expensive (the Broadway budget for Wicked being $14 million), and since the goal of Broadway theatre is to make money, not to make an artistic statement, whatever producers and investors need to do to make back their investment, by all means, they're welcome do it (as I am about as disinterested in what's going on with Broadway as Broadway is with Nosedive, it's no skin off my back).

So far, a few bloggers have weighed in on this, including the Playgoer, George, Isaac and Matt Freeman.

From Playgoer:

"Whenever I see those yellow cards in an auditorium I can't help but think of the famous Fatal Attraction test screening that changed the ending. Imagine that with Ibsen-'Sorry, Henrik. Audience wants Nora and Torvald to get back together.'"

From George:

Re-branding off-off-Broadway as "Indie Theatre," live commercials from the stage, getting marketing ideas from Tom Peters books ... continuing symptoms of a disease. Theatre is no more in itself a high or low art form than music, painting or anything else. But its absorption into masscult continues, via masscult avenues.


I'm not concerned about this, since...well...in a way, it's been happening for a while. In my mind, public readings with open talkback sessions and unending workshop sessions are the theatre world's equivalents of the "focus group," something I've griped about at length before in these pages (Playgoer asks, "Remember when post-show 'talkbacks' were educational, not a free focus-group to help producers' profits?" Honestly, no, I don't. I always saw talkbacks as the closest equivalent to "art-by-committee" in this medium and colossal wastes of time).

Again, my interest level in what Broadway is doing started out pretty damn low when I first moved to New York and has been declining ever since.

So far, I think Matt Freeman's assessment of the situation is probably the most pragmatic (i.e., if Broadway wants to waste tons of money on focus groups, let them; we should be able to use the tools of marketing without feeling like soulless corporate bottom-liners). He also points out that this trend may widen the already wide gap between Broadway and Off-off-Broadway (or Indie) theatre (which, of course, is fine by me).

(George despises the "indie" label because "it oozes ghettoization, self-congratulation and pseudo-radical smugness." Matt thinks it's a good and apt one because it separates what people like George, Matt and I do from what people in the Broadway world do and is a more accurate reflection of the type of theatre we make. Although both have valid points, I really don't care one way or the other about the name, since either moniker [indie or Off-off] usually elicits snickers when I use it to describe what I do to a non-theatre person.)

Anyway, you should check out the other posts on this.

Odd that this comes up right after I write about considering the pros and cons of an artist having commercial attributes.

Firmly on the fence,

James "Middling" Comtois


Anonymous George Hunka said...

Well, there's the problem, you see. Matt, you and I are all doing radically different things; there's more difference, I think, between my aesthetic and yours (not to favor either one of them, but we are doing quite different things), than there really is between, say, The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow and Three Days of Rain. This will become an issue. I can already see it happening; if it doesn't affect any kind of collaborative effort on the surface, it will affect the relationships between collaborators.

We really need more discussion on these aesthetic points, since part of the "Indie Theatre" label points to an aesthetic just as the "Broadway" label does.

10:24 AM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

George, you’re right, we are doing very different things, and we should spend time talking about the art itself rather than the marketing mechanics. We should, however, try to talk about some aspects of promoting our own shows without feeling like soulless sellouts. I see a danger of theatre artists adopting a self-righteous sour grapes attitude (i.e., “No one’s appreciating my work because they don’t understand or recognize my genius.”) that I think can be avoided if we at least talk a little bit about marketing — what works, what doesn’t, what’s a horrific idea — without breaking out into hives.

(Admittedly, this is coming from someone who — like you, I’m sure — has seen a number of super-shitty plays that have been about as much fun as root canal with very little “meat” to them that had built-in defense mechanisms in place that basically boiled down to: if I had a miserable time, it was my fault, because I’m a stupid Philistine.)

I actually have no problem with theatre consisting of disparate styles of work; I’m always tickled by the idea that Oklahoma!, The Blue Man Group, Aunt Dan and Lemon and Untitled Intentional Exercise #1 are all part of the same medium.

What (say) Bridal Suite and The Adventures of Nervous Boy have in common is that they were both written and created out of a need from their respective creators to say something. This, I think, is what ties these disparate aesthetics together and separates them (us) from Broadway, whose products aren’t created out of a need to say anything, but out of a need to cater to the lowest-common-denominator in order to sell millions of dollars in tickets.

Now, are you worried that this Nielson idea (or some variation thereof) is somehow going to trickle-down into the non-profit world of theatre? What do you mean by this affecting the relationships between collaborators?

11:04 AM  
Anonymous George Hunka said...

Oh, no, you're quite right, all art whether theater or film or sculpture is created out of need. On the other hand as we discuss these marketing tools that we have at hand, and as we say that we're going to help each other, we'd better be quite aware that a Stan Brakhage film like Dog Star Man is likely going to appeal to a different audience than Clerks. (Though not necessarily; I happen to enjoy both.) And the same marketing mechanism that works for Kevin Smith is not going to work for Brakhage.

And in a way we're much more competitive for that audience. There are, say, 50 Broadway theaters compared to 250 or more independent theaters in New York. So marketing is even more difficult. And if marketing is going to be appropriate to the show rather than the other way around, then it would be better for us to concentrate on our own work. And to discuss that. And to make it exciting to our readerships. I have to say that all this talk about marketing, and there's been so much of it, seems to have us going in circles. We might make more headway if we spoke about what we did rather than how to sell it.

I'm rather fascinated actually when some people comment that all my writing about aesthetics on my blog bores them, while this endless discussion of business never seems to pall. Admittedly, that's just me.

12:32 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Very true. I’ll admit I don’t know why I’m so fascinated with the marketing angle (because I am). I guess I’m just really interested in seeing how/what makes one non-Broadway show bring in throngs of people and what makes another bring in tumbleweeds. (Our mutual friend and colleague Mac Rogers has been getting crash courses in this for the past two years it seems, experiencing the former with one show one month and the latter with another show a month later.) 

The strange thing about theatre is that, outside of the Broadway realm, it has no quality control (with movies, you have a kinda-sorta idea of what you’re getting into even when you go see a movie by Matthew Barney at the Film Forum). You often have no idea what you’re getting yourself into as an audience member. As Wallace Shawn once pointed out, it’s like if restaurants were forbidden by law to post their menus on their windows, so people wanting to eat (say) Italian food would have to haphazardly go to every restaurant they come across until they found one with an Italian chef (this may be where talks of marketing and aesthetics can go hand-in-hand in the non-Broadway realm and make it less competitive and more cooperative: each company/artist finding a way to articulate what an audience member can expect to see when they buy a ticket to its/their show, and how it compares/contrasts to the work of another company/artist).

I also agree that we may want to explore this angle in very small doses, lest we go around in circles indefinitely.

People comment that all your writing about aesthetics on your blog bores them? Who? What people? Those douches. Where do they live? Let’s cut ‘em.

1:26 PM  
Anonymous sgridley said...

I agree with Hunka. Better to talk about the art then the marketing. Call it an inside - out approach. Art first, then marketing. Whoever thinks that an audience can get together in focus groups and manage to create a play that they'd actually like is out of their mind. Art is not a democracy. It's a freaking king-of-the-hill monarchy. When I see a van Gogh painting I'm looking at his and his vision alone. I had a freind say that he didn't think a writer could ever write a character that was smarter than him. I feel this applies directly to audiences. Unless the majority of the audience is a better playwright than the playwright, the suggestions they give are NOT going to work. Yes, feedback is necessary but it must be interpreted correctly. Taking it at face value is like giving your kids all the candy they want because they say they like it. Instead, I think feedback should be like taking your car to the mechanic. The steering doesn't work. I don't know WHY, that's the mechanics job. I don't think the audience has any idea what they really want. They can just tell when their not getting it. (Like children) And do I think this Neilson stuff will trickle into places other than Broadway? Yes, I do. Obviuosly, off-off broadway will never, ever do something like this. But off broadway will (to a lesser extent). And that is not so removed from us.

2:37 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

That’s a good read on the function of talkback sessions, Steve. See, I hate talkback sessions (which is why I rarely take part in them*). All I can think about during them is, “Write your own damn play if you wanted it to end/go this way” (and as an audience member to open readings with talkback sessions, I rarely ever comment). Most suggestions audiences provide at those things are usually colossal wastes of time: art-by-committee, truth-via-mass-consensus, audience-as-editor/co-author. But if playwrights/directors treat talkback sessions as a way of gauging how an audience will react and move forward from there, that may be a better use of everybody's time.

*Obviously, if Pete or Patrick or someone at Nosedive Central has a point or two after we read a new script of mine aloud at my apartment, I’ll hear them out. But public readings with talkback sessions? To quote MAD Magazine: Blech.

2:53 PM  

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