Live Streaming Broadway Performances, Nigh or Nay?

The “Why Won’t Broadway Livestream/Broadcast” argument has been going on for awhile now but a recent article on Fast Company suggests that time may be drawing near as Netflix’s influence and reach continues to wax.

The article is better written than many that tackle the subject because it acknowledges the objections and resistance to live streaming have a rational basis.

For instance, author Christopher Zara acknowledges there is something lost when a live performance is broadcast.

Theater is special. It’s not meant to be consumed on a screen because it’s fundamentally better than anything you’ll ever see on your computer, or your TV, or even in your local multiplex.

[…]

Even at the Tony Awards, which the Broadway League coproduces every year, the season’s best work often doesn’t hold up once it’s televised. “One of our biggest challenges is having the musical numbers on screen come off as great as they do in the theater,” St. Martin says of the awards ceremony.

At the same time, better technology and recording techniques are improving the ability to depict the live experience with greater fidelity.

Zara also mentions the concerns that broadcasts will cannibalize audiences. He cites general concerns of tour producers who fear the road business will diminish. I saw a specific example of this just a week ago where the Chicago Tribune predicted Hamilton would close in Chicago within a year because three performance venues in Wisconsin would be presenting the show.

On the other hand, Zara suggests streaming might help diversify audiences for Broadway shows given that last year ” 77% of ticket buyers were white, and most had an income of over $75,000 a year.”

Another point that often comes up in stories about why more Broadway shows aren’t broadcast is the stubbornness of the unions, all of which want to be paid. The Fast Company positions Broadway League President Charlotte St. Martin against Actors’ Equity Deputy Francis Jue in an obstruction vs. fair pay view of the situation.

Actors are compensated for streaming content via upfront payment and additional profits–a model that dates back to deals used for television. “Additional work requires additional pay,” Jue says. “Our contracts on Broadway are paying us to maintain the show on Broadway, so the additional work of creating new content distributed in a new medium is additional work.”

[…]

The League negotiates contracts with 14 different labor unions, and Actors’ Equity is just one of them. Musicians, set designers, choreographers–they all want to get paid, and St. Martin says that can be cost prohibitive for streaming outlets looking to distribute Broadway content. “They’re going to have to make it more affordable,” she says.

I think one key phrase in there is the concept that streaming payment are based on the television model. It is likely that arrangement is no longer relevant or increasingly less so and will change.

Last week in a Huffington Post interview, Anthony Ramos, who originated two roles in Hamilton talked about the lengthy negotiations the cast had to go through to get a share of the earnings.

“On Broadway, we had to negotiate with our producers to share some [earnings]. That was an ongoing process, but everybody came to an agreement,” he told HuffPost. “But we didn’t … the show didn’t financially make any of us rich. It provided for us and helped open doors to create other opportunities that helped us make money. But the show itself didn’t necessarily change my life or most people’s lives in the cast [financially]. The checks we get after that long negotiation for profit share have helped us after.”

[…]
Like in any other industry, Ramos believes success in the theater world hinges on an ability to fight for what you feel you deserve.

“People don’t take into consideration that you won’t be in the show forever. You’re doing it eight times a week. You don’t get paid when you get hurt. You have to earn every single dollar,” he said.

When I heard Oskar Eustis speak a couple years ago, I seem to recall he mentioned that providing for the Hamilton actors to share in the earnings right from the development stage was a relatively new thing. I don’t doubt that both Hamilton and live streaming will have great influence on future negotiations and challenge the standard way of doing things.

I will leave you with one of the final paragraphs from Fast Company as an argument about why streaming is probably inevitable:

Consider last season’s Dear Evan Hansen, which took home the Tony for best musical. It became a monster hit with younger audiences not just because of its storyline about an awkward high schooler who becomes a social media sensation, but because teens could discover the music on YouTube, post fan-made videos, and engage with the show in a way that would not have been possible a decade ago.

 

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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1 thought on “Live Streaming Broadway Performances, Nigh or Nay?

  1. Why don’t people watch theatre on TV? Because it is flat. It lacks emotion. It lacks the interaction.

    To me, art happens when the actors/singers/dancers and I breathe the same air.

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