Sunday, October 28, 2007

Business Models

I choose not to review television shows because they're the common medium: it's all too easy to access them, even easier to pass judgment on them (and for the most part, given how much TV we watch, accurate judgment), and there really isn't that much art left in the great many shows out there. I won't say there aren't exceptions (The Wire), or that there isn't great writing (House), innovative storytelling (Lost), or superbly self-indulgent satire (Boston Legal). But the only purpose critics serve in television is to keep a show on the air, something they've been failing to do (Arrested Development on the high end, Veronica Mars on the low).

Which brings me to the point of this would-be screen screed: NBC is all but giving away Friday Night Lights in a desperate attempt to grab fearful audience's attentions for the second season, which everybody seems to know is good, but nobody seems to watch. (It can't be that they don't know when it's on; it's actually in the title of the show.) You can buy the full season, all twenty-two episodes, for $20 through their site, and most other outlets offer it for $30, which is still a steal. Not that I'm schilling for the marketing department, though. I'm just pointing out the brilliance of their marketing. NBC has the pockets to take a "loss" on their DVD (in this case, it isn't really a loss, since making the DVD costs next to nothing -- any copy they sell, for almost any price, is a profit), but in doing so, helps to build an audience of cheapskates looking for a good value who, after stumbling into this solid, solid show, will theoretically keep watching, week after week, the "after" economics that will then yield profits for the show and the network.

There are theaters out there that have started similar initiatives, all with the purpose of dropping prices NOW so that they will have a more sustainable fan base LATER. With every ticket Todd Haimes sells for Speech and Debate, he's getting audiences (lured in by the solid production values and the $20 ticket price) interested in what Roundabout does. Every discount, be it for "young professionals," tour groups from out of town, corporations, &c., helps to build word of mouth and spill over into a large enough audience to sell out the next show on trust alone. I never know what I'm going to find when I go to Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, but I'm willing to buy a ticket because I trust the company will be doing fun stuff. When I make a small investment of money or time at PS 122 or HERE Arts Center, I'm trusting that their directors and curators are putting up shows that they actually care about, and not just trying to lease the space out. (This isn't always the case, but one can hope.)

Sarah Benson, new artistic director of Soho Rep, makes a valid point in the new issue of TONY (which is all about where the cost of a ticket goes): "The box office is a piece of the pie, but it's a small piece . . . we don't rely on it." Like Signature Theater, she is looking outside the box to find ways to keep the box office inexpensive so that she can build loyal audiences who trust the programming enough to come back should donors dry up and prices go back down. It's a circle too: the New York Times Magazine recently wrote about the kinds of people who give to their colleges (and why), and I think we'd find that donors are those long-standing patrons who feel a connection, cultivated over the years, to a good-intentioned organization.

Discounts are but a limited band-aid on the overwhelming inflation of ticket costs, and I'm liking the balls of a group like Roundabout to commit to cheaper pricing (with their ACCESS ROUNDABOUT program, say). When I saw Speech and Debate, I saw the next generation of theatergoers, and if they were simply half as impressed as I, they'll be back for more.

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