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"Producer's Corner"
by Bruce Lazarus

Survey Says --
Your Audience Is Changing

Every Tuesday night I host a free TeleCourse in which I invite a different theatre-industry professional to discuss an aspect of the theatrical production process with both experienced and novice producers.

Recently our guest was George Wachtel, President of Audience Research and Analysis, who discussed the changing demographics of Broadway audiences and how audience surveys help producers track and work with those changes. Director of Research and Government Relations for the League of American Theatres and Producers for many years, George has an extensive background in tracking and targeting theatregoers.

Before he discussed how audience surveys work, George gave us some background on how the theatre industry came to realize how important it is to know who is in the audience.  Up until 1980, 2/3 to 3/4 of the people in a typical Broadway audience were from the Metropolitan New York area.  Then a company called Consumer Behavior discovered that people outside of New York cited Broadway as the number one reason to visit New York, 2 to 1 over anything else.  A new era of marketing to tourists began, with  the "I Love New York" advertising campaign featuring  Broadway celebrities such as Frank Langella (then appearing in Dracula) inviting out-of-towners to Broadway.  The campaign was an enormous success.  11 million tickets were sold to Broadway shows that year, up from 5.4 million in 1973.  Suddenly, the Broadway audience was more diversified than ever before, and producers had to keep track of who was buying tickets so they could advertise and market their shows more effectively.  Now, George told us, the number one attraction in New York City for tourists is still the commercial theatre, but with off-Broadway shows becoming more visible through more sophisticated marketing techniques, out-of-towners and foreign visitors are becoming more aware of what is being offered south of 41st Street and are less likely than ever to discriminate between on Broadway and off if they are interested in the show.

Foreign tourists are also a large and growing population of the Broadway audience, and producers, press agents and advertising agencies need to reach them as well through their native language press and in their hotels. George told us that 2 factors will generally determine what percentage of a Broadway show's audience is foreign tourists: what type of a show it is, and how long it has been running.  A typical audience at Cats is now 80% - 90% tourists, with half of those tourists foreign visitors.  This proves George's point that those who do not speak English most enjoy "sung-through" (non-book) musicals, because they can enjoy the music and dancing, and that the longer a show has run, the more theatregoers in the New York area will have already seen it, and therefore the larger percentage of its audience will be tourists.  Another case in point was the musical revue Black and Blue, which enjoyed a very strong foreign following, particularly among the Japanese.  The surveys George has participated in have also shown interesting differences between foreign cultures when it comes to their taste in theatre.  Canadians like to see dramas on Broadway, because not much drama is produced in Canada, but they can see American-produced tours of musicals in Toronto and other major cities all the time.  Brazil sends the most tourists to the Broadway theatre.  45% of Brazilian tourists in New York City plan to attend a Broadway show.  Most foreign tourists in New York are British, but they are far from starved for theatre at home, and are more interested in other activities.

 Depending upon what the producer wants to find out, George explained, he and his company will structure an audience survey in different ways.  Audience members may be asked questions by a live interviewer after the show, or handed a questionnaire and pencil.  The results will tell a producer not only the demographics of his audience (their typical age, sex, place of residence, even sexual preference), but also their theatregoing habits and their opinions of separate elements of the show and of the show overall.  These results can help a producer not only plan his or her future advertising and marketing efforts for that show, but also determine his target audience for his or her  next show.  When the producers of Jelly's Last Jam discovered through audience surveys that their audience came primarily from outside New York, they decided to market their next musical, Smokey Joe's Cafe, to those tourists.  Their efforts, including a major presentation aboard the U.S.S. Intrepid for a tourism convention, have brought enviable numbers of tourists to their show.  The most worthwhile surveys, George stressed, are those that are done over time, so that trends can be tracked.  As a show?s audience demographics change, changes must be made in advertising and marketing.

Besides tracking demographics, an audience survey can help a producer track the perception of a show.  When the musical Titanic was in previews on Broadway last season, there were many technical difficulties, and word of mouth was very negative.  When the show opened, the reviews were mixed, but the ticket sales began to increase.  Surveys of audiences at Titanic and other musicals showed not only that word of mouth was becoming very positive, but that the public perception was that the show had received good reviews.  Audience members were moved by the story and the music.  This information helped the producers and their marketing and publicity team direct their efforts to sharing the music.  Musical numbers performed on Late Night With David Letterman and The Rosie O'Donnell Show gave the music nationwide exposure, and RCA used audience quotes such as "the music stays with you long after the show is over" in their advertising campaign for the cast album.  Ticket sales continued to climb.  In June, Titanic won the  Tony Award for Best Musical.

As another example, despite uniformly glowing reviews and feature stories, the off-Broadway musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch was recently not selling out the way a show with such notices normally would.  When the producers went to George and his firm to find out why, he decided not only to survey audiences at Hedwig about who they are and what brought them to the show, but also other off-Broadway theatregoers about their knowledge and perception of Hedwig and its reviews.  Once again, George pointed out, the questions people are asked in an audience survey, and who is asked, depends upon what the producer is trying to find out and what his or her goals are.  A producer may want to find out how foreign tourists find out about Broadway shows in general, so that he or she may plan an effective advertising and marketing campaign for a non-book musical.  Or a producer may want to find out how audiences at his or her specific show are responding to a change in the ending of the show in previews, and how the show's ending may or may not affect what the audience members will tell their friends about the show.

Surveys sometimes bring surprising results that will be of interest to many  producers and aspiring  producers planning their next project.  As one example, the success of the recent Broadway revival of Grease was more a result of the interest of young women ages 18-25 than baby boomers nostalgic for the 1950s.  In the late 1970s, Broadway advertising agencies were buying advertising time on easy listening radio stations, assuming that their audience was older and too staid for rock and roll. When surveys showed theatergoers listened to all kinds of rock from soft to progressive, those ad agencies sat up and listened.   Stephen Sondheim's fairy tale Into the Woods was seen by many grown up baby boomers who listen to WNEW.

George has developed a system for rating radio stations by taking percentages of theatregoers who listened to a station, dividing that number  into the station's average ad rate, and thus assigning the station a rating point. Jazz, classical, and progressive rock have higher points on thissystem than do the all-news stations or best rated stations. In addition, although the most expensive air time to buy on a radio station is during its morning and afternoon drive times, that is not necessarily the best time to target theatregoers.  Many are home or in their offices with the radio on all day.  Advertising time on the 6:00 A.M. - 7:00 A.M. local news shows is relatively inexpensive, but it is during this hour that tourists often have their televisions on in their hotel rooms before they head out for the day.

Finally, George informed us, a new Broadway audience study from over a 12 month period will soon be complete. Audiences at 104 different shows have been surveyed at different performance times on a rotating basis, totaling approximately 11,000 responses.  This information will be invaluable to the producers of the 21st century trying to find, target, and please their audience.
 


Bruce Lazarus the former Director of Business and Legal Affairs for Walt Disney Theatrical Productions and producer of the current off-Broadway show Shakespeare's "R&J."

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