Thursday, May 28, 2009

Felicia R. Lee Reports Broadway Grosses Are Up. Has The NYT Sold Off Its Calculators For Cash?

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.


Anonymous said...

"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."

Tune in tomorrow, when the nytpicker tells us something we don't know already.

Anonymous said...

I was prepared to be outraged. Then I read the full article. I think you're being pretty unfair, especially since the information you used to refute the so-called Pollyannaish thesis is from the article itself. If you found she had ignored some details, then you might be entitled to snipe.

A quick skim of the article includes plenty of words that wouldn't come the mouth of a hype master. The headline is "Broadway Receipts Increase Slightly". Gosh, that "slightly" word is not something that I would characterize as reporting "joyously".

The lede is just as balanced. There's a "a slight increase" in the receipts. The next sentence about enduring appeal of escapist theater is attributed to some producers. It's not a nut graf.

Then after a nice, plump boosterish paragraph, she comes back with "The increase in grosses was small, though".

Given that tax receipts for the country are off 30%+. Given that car sales are down 30%+. Given that stocks are down 20-50%. I think even a small increase in receipts is noteworthy. Even when you back out all of the caveats -- reported carefully in the piece-- I still come up concluding that there's a great deal of truth to the idea that people like escape.

This is one of the few times that I've really disagreed with you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Mr. Sifton.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to respectfully disagree with Anonymous #2 and defend NYTPicker a little bit here. This story buries the lede by headlining an increase in gross receipts, when the real news is a decline in attendance. That should have been the lede. When you factor in the fact that there were more shows this season, and higher ticket prices, it renders the "slight increase" meaningless.

Also, the "caveats" weren't "reported carefully" in the piece, not that I can tell. She mentions that this season had more productions than last, but she doesn't link that figure to the receipts. Those stats get buried after the jump and are thrown in here and there. She doesn't even really represent them as caveats, more as just random facts.

This site doesn't hit the right note every time for everyone, including me, but I like the way he/she/they try their damndest to keep the Times honest.

Anonymous said...

Ever wonder why this site goes quiet from about 9:30 in the morning on?

That's because NYTPicker is an unemployed recent journalism school graduate who has to read the paper, make his Twitter jokes, find a story to critique, pound out a post, and all before 9:30 so he/she can get his/her ass over to his/her barista job at Starbucks by 10 a.m.

The Times should just hire NYTPicker. That way they kill off the site and get a smart/funny reporter out of it. It's a win win.

Anonymous said...

#4: This story buries the lede by headlining an increase in gross receipts, when the real news is a decline in attendance.

me: Why is the real news the decline in attendance and not the increase in gross receipts? Both are slight. I can't see any reason why one is more important than the other. You might like bad news but others like the good news.

The increase in revenues is not an insubstantial thing for the producers. They have fixed costs to pay stage hands, actors and rent. In some sense, it doesn't matter to the beancounters if there are more or fewer people in the seats as long as there's enough revenue to pay everyone. That's the art of business.

I guess the real question is how much unpacking should a reporter do? And just how skeptical and dour? I can't say I have an answer.

Anonymous said...

Maybe this will shed some insight -or the times should hire this reporter: Print

Broadway Changes Rules to Boost Figures as New Season Begins
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By Jeremy Gerard

May 29 (Bloomberg) -- Starting June 1, the Broadway industry will boost weekly sales and attendance figures without actually bringing in new theater customers. It’s not as brazen as the scheme in “The Producers” to make millions by producing a flop, but it does employ some sleight of hand.

“The industry is moving to report our numbers in a way that is more like the film industry,” Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the Broadway League, said in an interview yesterday. The league represents Broadway producers and theater owners.

On Monday, the league will release sales and attendance figures for Week 1 of the 2009-2010 season. Under the new rules, producers will no longer deduct fees for group sales and credit cards from their reported sales, as they have in the past. That change is expected to increase total sales figures by 3 percent to 4 percent, St. Martin said.

Fees for telephone and online services such as Telecharge and Ticketmaster are not included in the tally.

The season that ended on May 24 reported total sales of $943.3 million. If the new rules had been applied, that figure would have risen to between $971.6 million and $981 million.

In addition, producers will now report total attendance figures for the week, including seats given away free for press, promotion and other purposes. Previously, only paid attendance was reported. That change is expected to have less of an impact, St. Martin said, because most complimentary tickets are restricted to performances immediately before and after a show’s opening.

Blame ‘Frankenstein’

St. Martin said that unease about the way the figures were reported came to a head when the producers of “Young Frankenstein” refused to release any numbers during that show’s run from November 2007 to January 2009. Figures for the season just ended included unverifiable industry sales and attendance estimates for the show.

“I would say it was instigated by the ‘Young Frankenstein’ situation,” St. Martin said. “We were struggling as an industry because the numbers were no longer accurate. I’m a ‘numbers are what the numbers are’ girl.”

Members of a league committee headed by “The Phantom of the Opera” general manager Alan Wasser were vocal about different ways of reporting the numbers -- or not reporting them at all.

“It was healthy,” St. Martin said. “People actually changed their opinions.”

To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at
Last Updated: May 28, 2009 22:30 EDT