Broadway and Television: Weighing the Risks

President's Report

Volume C, No. 3March, 2000

Bill Moriarity

As is reported elsewhere in this issue, Broadway musicians recently ratified the new agreement between Local 802 and the Broadway Television Network (BTN) by a two-to-one margin.

The aspect of this activity (pay-per-view telecasts of live shows and the subsequent release of that product in the home video and other markets) that caused the most discussion was the “risk” factor. Given a choice, a great many Broadway players – probably most of them – would no doubt decline to participate in this venture. But we were, in the end, not given this choice and those musicians who ratified are to be commended for making the best of an unwelcome situation. (We had no ability to withhold services because telecasts like pay-per-view and basic cable are allowed under the Broadway agreement, provided that compensation is negotiated between the parties. Should the negotiations break down or reach impasse, as happened here, the dispute is resolved by means of the contract’s grievance and arbitration provision. We cannot strike; we are required to arbitrate.)

The risk posed by this situation is that telecasting a production and, more importantly, making it available for home consumption, could kill or shorten its run on Broadway.

At this point, with virtually no real experience, it is not possible to demonstrate that this will occur – although looking only at the initial pay-per-view showing, it seems improbable that this historically limited market could affect either Broadway or road productions. (Even if BTN’s wildest expectations were realized and a show’s telecast approached the numbers recorded for the highest rated non-sports event in pay-TV history, the Howard Stern Special of several years ago, we would still be talking about less than 400,000 homes nationwide. This is not network TV.) The home video market is a complete unknown. At this time, all we have is various unsupported opinions on this subject.

My own opinion, for whatever it’s worth, is that it will have little or no effect on the short-term foreseeable future. Long term, whatever else may be said to affect Broadway, I don’t think that videocassettes will “kill” a successful show, although the changes that may occur could be dramatic – just as the presence of longer-running musicals during the past 20 or 25 years is in dramatic contrast to the years preceding, say, 1970.

Ultimately, we need to have faith in the superiority of live musical theatre, and to be able to adjust to its new dimensions. It needs to be pointed out, however, that risk exists in the other direction also.

We live in an ever more celebrity-driven entertainment world. It sometimes seems as if notoriety translates into celebrity which is seen by the population in a positive light, no matter what the source. Broadway, as a more talent-driven than celebrity-driven enterprise, is in great danger of becoming marginalized in the public mind. Broadway openings no longer generate the buzz they once did. In fact, they are no longer reviewed on most local TV news broadcasts. Highly talented stage performers have little or no name recognition among the general public. The Tony’s telecasts continue to experience, at best, very modest ratings. There are many reasons for this, none of them having anything to do with the ability of Broadway performers to sing or dance or act or play musical instruments.

Like it or not, in today’s world television confers credit. The lack of a television presence relegates any activity to the fringes of public consciousness. In earlier days the print media had this power – and, while they did, Broadway had immense public presence. The entertainment markets and the public relations necessary to sustain a position in the marketplace have changed, and we may need to change too. Whether this is the right change or whether pay-per-view is the proper vehicle to accomplish change will only become clear with time.