So the ratings are in and of course 11 million or so viewers watched the Sopranos Finale, against about 6.2 million who watched the Tony Awards on Sunday night. Because of the ubiquitous Salon article, these figures are of interest. Some have used it as confirmation that Theatre is failing to reach audiences, and use it to point to what they see as flaws of playwrighting and producing the medium.
I've said, in a bit of a rambling way, that I found the article to be indicative of stereotypes and also a misunderstanding of how development affect theatre as a whole. Jason Grote speaks well to a lot of this here.
Let me get a little more to the point and sort of bring my thoughts on this together.
Over at Superfluities, George Hunka threw his hat into the ring regarding the debate about Howard Barker and the sudden lack of funding that his company is receiving. The argument can be reduced to this (I'm sure it's more complex, but bear with me):
We have a responsiblity to fund and support significant artists as a public, because simply applying the standards of commerical viability to them does them a disservice. Not all value can be reduced to dollars.
What struck me as a bit paradoxical in George's argument, and in the arguments of some others, is that while he was supporting Barker's right to public funding, he has also noted that he felt that one of the reasons that audiences haven't been attending the theatre, is because theatre artists are lacking something. They are making trite, uninspiried works that fail to communicate something of merit, or that fail to reach audiences. In this respect, George and Scott Walters are in a sort of agreement: They both seem to believe Theatre is broken and needs fixing. One way or another. Either because modern theatre lacks the desire to adventure in form, or content, or because it is too beholden to the marketplace, or because it refuses to abhor the marketplace, or because plays are using old forms, or because the new forms aren't new enough, etc. etc.
This, oddly enough, is the logic of the marketplace. It might be the marketplace of ideas, but it's still a marketplace. It says that audiences follow and find good works because of their quality. That seems to contradict the idea, of course, that the Arts need public funding. If Barker needs public funding, does it mean that his work fails to attract an audience, and therefore is of low quality?
The answer, of course, is no. How does this connect to the Sopranos versus Tony Awards discussion? The same principle is at work here.
No single factor brings audiences together, just as no single factor creates quality artistry in any medium. The Arts do need public funding, because the value of a dollar does not equal the value of an actual thing. If it did, public school teachers would be paid more than NBA Basketball players.
They aren't, of course, because the value of a dollar is merely reflective of a revenue stream. What goes in must come out. Basketball players are necessary members of an industry that uses a game to sell labels, products, tickets, t-shirts, television adverstising, the works. They have a revenue stream that supports thousands of people and hundreds of products. Public school teachers do not create a revenue stream. They create (ideally) intelligent, responsible citizens.
That is why public school teachers should not be held to the same market standard of basketball stars. They are not in the same business. It's simply not an apt comparison. It might indicate that the society's standards for the value of a dollar are skewed. It might also, simply, indicate that dollars move in certain ways around a market economy and the function of government, and public funding, is to stress the importance of things that are not immediately reflected by the sale of a t-shirt.
Now, the comparison between television and theater is a bit different. They have the outward appearance of similarity. They both have characters, writers, directors, storytelling. They share, often, themes and structures. Even talent. It is not a question of sports and school. It's a question of one medium of storytelling and another. That's why it's tempting to see the rise of one as the fall of the other. It's tempting to see 11 million viewers versus 6 million viewers as an damning indication that television is more popular because it speaks to audiences more effectively than theatre does.
That conclusion is wildly off-base.
The major difference between television and theater (of the many) is simply technological. That technological difference transforms not only the way in which each tell stories, but the way in which those stories are absorbed, by whom, and how often.
How does one watch The Sopranos? Spend the money to get a TV, cable, and a subscription to HBO. How many times does one watch The Sopranos? If you're a fan... 86. There are 86 episodes of this television show. Even if you watch only half of them, you are viewing it 43 times. A single episode is also rebroadcast throughout the week of first-run. That is not counting re-runs. Or rebroadcast on A&E.
So... one of the revenue streams of the Sopranos is subscriptions to HBO. What else? DVD sales. The box set of Season 1 of the Sopranos costs about $45 on Amazon.com. If you paid $45 dollars, yourself, for each season that's $270 you just spent, personally, to own 86 hours of television. That's just a single person. Millions of these individually packaged Seasons are sold.
What else does this provide besides a revenue stream? Knowledge. What if you didn't watch the first season of The Sopranos? You can buy or rent the DVDs, or get the mailed to you via Netflix, catch up, get HBO and watch with everyone else. Audiences can be built. They can go away and be replaced. They can be educated to the story. There is a deliverable.
The Sopranos is rebroadcast on A&E. A&E sells advertising during the edited episodes. More revenue, more audiences.
I want to take note of something. I have yet to speak about the quality of The Sopranos. I'm talking logistics. How does this show reach 11 million people and cultivate a fan base? How does it speak to so many people? How come a kid in the middle of Kentucky and I, living in Brooklyn, can have precisely the same experience with this television program? Technology. Revenue streams.
Theatre, by its nature, cannot do this. Theatre is performed live. It is performed in certain locations at certain times. Videotape it and e-mail it to a friend and you are not, actually, experiencing it as Theatre. Theatre reaches fewer people. That is not an indication of its quality, it is an indication of its nature.
Is this a flaw? No. It is a fundamental difference. Wicked is a smash hit on Broadway. Last week's grosses were about $1.4 million or so. It played at the Gershwin. That's with a $100.00 ticket price. Wicked will run for years, and sell its cast album.
Knocked Up made about $30 million dollars at a $10 ticket price in its opening weekend. It played on 2,800 screens. It will play on those screens several times a day for a few months. Then, we can all buy it for $30 on DVD until the stop making DVDs. It wasn't even Number One at the Box Office last weekend.
Is Knocked Up, therefore, of higher quality than Wicked? It makes no difference. Even the worst movie will outgross Wicked simply because it is capable. That does not mean, of course, that Wicked is unprofitable or without value. Any given production of Endgame will have substantially fewer viewers than any single showing of American Idol. There's no remedy for that, unless we believe that simple exposure is akin to a value judgment.
What does this all mean? None of this is a question of quality or value. We can argue the merits within the purely subjective context of merit itself, certainly. I see lots of quality theatre and I hope that I create quality theatre. That's an entirely different issue, one that has its own ups and downs. It is a question of technology and logistics. Theatre, perhaps, can do more to market itself to new audiences (I've raised that flag often) and certainly we should never stop seeking to innovate or strive in our art. But to compare Tony Soprano to the Tony Awards is like comparing the NBA to the Opera.
It's fundamentally unfair and misleading to use the differences in audience as the foundation for an argument about the merits of what is seen on the stage.
- Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.