The NYT reports joyously this morning on the front page of the Arts section that grosses for Broadway theater -- one of its last remaining loyal advertising communities -- are up!
Why? Well, reporter Felicia R. Lee has this explanation for us right in her lede.
"Those numbers reflect the enduring appeal of entertainment as a form of escape in the midst of a recession," Lee reports, a statement she attributes to "some producers."
But some re-calculations by The NYTPicker show that the premise of Lee's story is undercut by her own statistics -- those later in the story that report a $1.23 increase in average ticket cost from last year's figures. And one fact left out of Lee's story entirely is that the number of Broadway shows rose this year to 43 productions, up from 36 last year.
Together, those two facts make clear that Broadway actually suffered a decline in attendance this year, a fact Lee only mentions in passing late in her account, and counters with self-serving quotes from producers who declared their own cooked books as "reason to rejoice."
"We're thrilled," Philip J. Smith, the chairman of the powerful Shubert Organization, told Lee. Of course he is! He has just convinced the NYT to spin straw into gold.
In Lee's version of events, Broadway's total gross receipts for the 2008-9 season rose to $943.3 million, a "slight increase" (words that found their way into the headline) over last year's total of $937.5 million.
But parenthetically, Lee notes that the average Broadway admission price rose this season to $77.66, from last year's $76.43.
That $1.23 per-ticket increase -- when factored into the gross receipts -- reveals a drop of 120,000 admissions this season.
That's bad news, but it gets even worse when you factor in the information Lee left out. With seven more Broadway productions this season, that suggests a far darker narrative for 2008-9 than Lee's rosy lede implies.
It's true, as Lee notes, that last year's season was marred by the 19-day stagehands' strike. But shouldn't that lead to an even less upbeat interpretation of this year's numbers? Had Broadway not lost all that revenue last season, the year-to-year comparisons would have been worse, not better.
After getting through Lee's fallacious spin of the stats, you'll find that some Broadway producers aren't exactly jumping for joy over the news -- mostly because they, unlike Lee, see through her miscalculations to the truth. "Theater didn't contract" this season, Lincoln Center Theater's executive producer told the NYT, "it perked up."
That's technically correct; there's more theater this year than last. But Lee doesn't press Gersten -- or anyone else -- to address the reality that these new statistics spell out without saying, which is that there are also more empty seats on Broadway this season than last.
So, this season Broadway producers squeezed more dollars out of fewer theatergoers. Is that really a reason to rejoice?
The only producer to acknowledge this reality was Broadway producer James Freydberg, late in Lee's piece, whose quote is the story's only reference to the misleading aspect of the story's thesis.
“I agree that it was an amazingly good season considering what is happening in the economy,” Freydberg told Lee . “But the prices are quite different, so I don’t think you can make a comparison in gross sales."
He's right. You can't.
And by "you," we mean Lee, theater editor Katherine Bouton, and Sam Sifton, the NYT's culture editor. It's sad to see the paper's Broadway booster mentality get in the way of simple math, good reporting, careful editing, and the appearance of an impartial perspective on an industry that helps pay its bills.