Theater things that don’t make sense: Vol. 3. We need you. Pay up.

This year’s Tony Awards featured more performances than previous years.  Why?  Because the producers of the Tonys know that performances are what America wants to see. 

Our fans in Ohio and Florida would much rather watch the original cast of Rent or see a number from Young Frankenstein (whether or not it was nominated) than watch the acceptance speech for Best Sound Design of a Play.  Wouldn’t you? 

That’s why I watched from the suburbs of Massachusetts in the late 80s.  In those pre-YouYube days, I used to record the Tonys on our VCR so I could watch them over and over again.  And it worked!  The Tony performance of Secret Garden got me to buy tickets . . . twice.

What you may not know is that those Tony performances cost money.  A LOT of money.  A performance by a big musical can easily cost $200k – $300k.  The cast members get a week’s salary (up to a cap), new sets and props have to be built (we had to build an entire new set of desks for Millie’s "Forget About The Boy" appearance in 2002), there are dresser costs, recording session expenses (the ensembles are tracked, the principals are live), transportation costs, stagehands costs, and so on.  It adds up! 

Since The Tonys need these performances to attract an audience, to build ratings, to get advertisers, to make money, you would think that they would pay for the appearance, right?

Nope.  The Tony Awards give each show a stipend to offset the costs of their performance, but they don’t pay for the whole thing.  How much?  A whopping $20k.  And that’s for nominated shows.  Non-nominated shows pay full freight.

So we provide the content for them to make money, and we pay for the bulk of it.  Seems crazy, right?  And did I tell you that they get to approve of the number?

You’re probably saying, "The ratings are so low, we’re lucky we even get a show."  It’s true, sort of.  Thank God for CBS’s commitment to The Tonys, but they’re not doing this for charity or because a CEO somewhere was smitten by a performance of Shenandoah when he was 7.  I was once told by an insider that while the numbers of viewers aren’t exceptionally high, the TYPE of viewer that watches the Tonys is why CBS does the show year after year.  The Tonys, as you can imagine, attract a very concentrated group of highly educated, more affluent consumers, which means they can charge top dollar to top brands.

Why do we pay these high costs year after year?  Simple.  When are you ever going to get the opportunity to get a three minute national commercial for your show to your target demographic for $200k.  It’s like a blue light special for TV time! 

So we’ll keep paying, and for the shows like South Pacific, In The Heights, even Young Frankenstein, it’s a no-brainer.

But what if you’re Cry BabyXanadu?  All of a sudden that Tony nomination isn’t the greatest thing that has ever happened to you, is it? 

Because you have to pay for it. 

– – – – –

My rating of the Tonys this year was a thumbs-up, by the way.  Mo’ performances equals mo’ better.

  • Esther says:

    Wow, now I know why CBS keeps broadcasting the Tonys despite the low ratings. I’ll have to go back to my DVR and check out the commercials to see what the advertisers were trying to sell to my highly educated, more affluent self!

  • MissPatrice says:

    I know this is an older post, but I’m just tuning in and catching up (love this, thank you for sharing all that you do)
    Some thoughts though:
    1) While terrible expensive to have a Tony act perform, by TV industry standards for air time and the cost of transpoting an act and running it, that awful number does make sense. It’s hard to get around.
    2) Of course, the awful costs of getting your show out there are what make theater a business challenge, and often, a gamble. These challenges are what give (us) producers jobs though, too. The Tony costs translate to a multiplication of the costs shows under unions (especially in NY and LA) are burdened with to begin with (ie needing to pay all personnel the same despite their work time on a production, rehearsal constrictions, sm/crew restrications, etc). (I am not denying the necessity of labor regulation in the industry).
    It comes down to the same financial puzzle for musicals:
    How can we pay so much for so little time?

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