We were browsing the Society of London Theatre website recently and discovered that some research was done on this topic (well the first part) over a year ago. With the latest show, ‘The Wizard of Oz’ about to open, we thought we’d take another look.
The results suggest that “almost half (47%) of those surveyed by Ipsos MORI said that watching the TV show had made them more likely to see the musical production featured on TV, with 34% saying it had made them more likely to go and see a musical in the West End in general. In addition, 23% were more likely to see non-musical productions such as plays or comedies as a result of watching a reality-based theatre show on TV.”
But this raises more questions than it answers: Are we talking about first-time theatregoers? Do they visit the theatre regularly anyway, and is this an extra trip or a substitute for a different theatre trip? The research says that 53% were either not influenced, did not watch the show, or went in spite of the shows. Perhaps they intended to go and that is why they watched the casting shows. Had they voted? Did they mind who was cast in the end?
The latest box office revenues report from the Society of London Theatre (as reported in ‘The Stage’ last week) shows box office takings slightly up, attendance slightly down, although the weather could be blamed for this. For musicals, a 3% drop in attendance equated to a 1% drop in revenues. This could be suggesting that the effect of the casting shows is not sustainable in the long run. But we need to remember that it is not just about attendance – our impression, certainly with the early shows, was that audiences generally paid full price for their tickets as demand was so high – we saw very few offers for the first two shows at least. In addition, the figures in the report talk about gross takings, not profit. The promotion from TV must surely reduce the overall costs of marketing and advertising to get audiences in, reducing overheads and increasing profit. And the BBC benefits from the exposure and association with high-profile figures such as Andrew Lloyd Webber.
And then there is opportunity cost: we don’t know what other productions might have played and how they might have done. We have seen and heard of plenty of quality regional productions that fail to transfer for all sorts of reasons, often because producers want a safe bet. They certainly didn’t have the advantages of the casting show productions in promotional terms. Commentators always call for new shows, but new means unknown, and that means risk.
Of course the question of quality remains, and there seems to be a constant desire to justify the shows on the basis of ‘finding new talent’, and protesting that this process does not diminish the quality of West End productions. This is inevitable when the BBC is involved – we expect an organisation which is partly funded by the licence fee to do more that just boost the bottom line of theatre owners. Perhaps this is the point Cameron Mackintosh is trying to make when he says that “Julie Andrews was Eliza Doolittle despite not going to drama school”. Well, Julie Andrews did receive some very high-class singing tuition and was a working child star considered good enough to sing at the Royal Command Performance at the age of 12 and made her Broadway debut at 19. We don’t think anyone believes that a TV casting show will unearth the next Julie Andrews.
If anyone would like to look at the whole press release including the full Mackintosh quote at the bottom and tell us exactly what point he is trying to make here, we would be delighted.
More on this topic soon.