More B'way Shows, Fewer Customers: Woo-Hoo!
Forty-three shows opened on Broadway this season, nearly 20 percent more than last season, yet paid attendance was down from 2007-08. That would be the glass-half-empty way of looking at the numbers for this year, and a perfectly legitimate one. But the way much of the media reported the news, one would think the glass was not just full but overflowing.
"Broadway Breaks Box Office Record for 2008-09 Season," reads the New York Times headline on a blog item that mentions the paid-attendance downturn in the eighth paragraph.
A Fox News blog post is positively breathless, trumpeting "some long-awaited positive economic news" under the headline "Broadway's Record-Breaking Year!" Though that item does quickly mention the 1 percent drop in paid attendance -- a decrease substantially larger than the .6 percent increase in gross revenues -- it then skates ahead to Broadway League executive director Charlotte St. Martin's contention that, in the reporter's paraphrase, "other industries could learn some money-making tips from Broadway." (No, St. Martin's advice isn't to make lots more product, keep hiking your prices, and attract fewer paying customers. It's to stay "in touch with what the consumer really wants.")
"Broadway theatres defy recession," a BBC headline announces. That they wouldn't defy it was, of course, the industry's giant, lurking fear, exacerbated by the still-painful memory of tourists scattering in the fall of 2001. So there is understandable relief that, in the words of The Associated Press, "Even during a recession, Broadway managed to hold its own." That's newsworthy.
But did so much of the coverage occasioned by the Broadway League's release of 2008-09's official figures -- grosses of $943.3 million, up from $937.5 million in 2007-08, and paid attendance of 12.15 million, down from 12.27 million last season -- have to follow the lead of that industry group? Did so many journalists have to quote St. Martin so unquestioningly? Are reporters and editors really as math-averse as this would suggest? (Well, yes, they are. Most of them, anyway.)
As Bloomberg's Jeremy Gerard notes with his customary savvy, "The increase in sales represents higher average ticket prices, while the drop in paid attendance suggests that the tightening economy did frighten away some theatergoers. The attendance figures are especially notable because in the 2007-08 season, much of Broadway was shut down during a 19-day strike by unionized stagehands."
That season, unsurprisingly, paid attendance fell .2 percent, from 12.3 million the season before. So 2008-09 continued a downward trend.
Context is everything. When journalists take their cue from a press release, when they don't look hard at the numbers, when they mistake hype for reality, illuminating context has a nasty tendency to be missing in action.