Saturday, April 6, 2013

Giving It All Away

An earlier blog post of mine garnered a bit of attention by slamming what I see as a destructive and unsustainable escalation in Broadway ticket prices. I theorized that Broadway could find itself in the same dilemma as other entertainments that have experienced a troubling inability to sustain attendance with ever increasing ticket prices within the context of a painfully slow economic recovery. 

While I focused on the problems found on the high end of the pricing spectrum, there also exist problems on the low end. 

The following is an excerpt from an email discussion I had last year with a TDF administrator. Within a wide ranging conversation, I offered up the following, and reprint it here for consideration. 


It is a pithy acronym, but TDF does mean “Theater Development Fund”. If the mission of the Fund is to develop future audiences for theater in general, and Broadway in particular, why doesn’t the Fund more specifically target young audiences, the only demographic that has any hope of insuring  the long term health of the theater industry? Why are middle class professionals, among others, populating the ranks of the Theater Development Fund’s membership rolls? How does providing steep and unsustainable discounts to a demographic that can afford to attend theater performances help the long term viability of the theater industry? For every TDF ticket sold, that is one less ticket sold at a realistic and sustainable price, be it TKTS or other discount, or even full price.

Therefore, TDF should take the following steps to transform its membership and align itself with its reason for existence. 

1.       Institute age limits on members. After age 25, it’s time to grow up and pay the fair price for theater tickets.
2.       Limit members to purchasing tickets to any given show to one time only.
3.       Memberships should be limited to two and only two tickets per membership, per show. Additional tickets would be purchased at the regular price, or any applicable discount offered by the show.
4.       Institute time limited memberships. A two year membership may not be renewed. After a year, they must reapply.
5.       Membership should be limited. When the total is sold, start a waiting list. (This works quite well for Lincoln Center Theater, another non-profit entity.)
6.       Require members to keep money on account with TDF for the purchase of tickets. This could greatly help with rules compliance issues.
7.       TDF sales for any performance should be limited to 10% of a venue’s capacity. This would ensure an orderly walk in at curtain time.
8.       ELIMINATE ALL MEMBERS FROM OUTSIDE OF NYC AND IT’S ENVIRONS. (Most of Broadway audiences are now tourists. Why do we see Florida or California Drivers Licenses presented when picking up TDF tickets? This is a shameful and destructive practice that is currently allowed by TDF.)
9.       The price of TDF tickets must be raised. As previously stated, $31.00 is unsustainable. A realistic price should be no lower than $45.00 or more. Even at this level, it would be a tremendous bargain for Broadway theater.
10.   As for pricing, why limit TDF to a single price? TKTS has embraced variable pricing, TDF should do the same.
11.   Eliminate or greatly restrict the use of near term e-ticketing. If TDF were not available for the current week, shows would not find themselves in the unenviable position of competing with themselves in a race to the bottom with respect to pricing. Again, TKTS is there for same day and next day discounts. TDF should more closely coordinate with its corporate cousin to enhance the sale of ‘sturdier’ or more sustainable discounts.


Some specifics are out of date by now, and some ideas may conflict with others. The fact remains that unsustainably low priced tickets, sold in the unrestricted way they currently are, does not help, but does damage to the long term viability of shows that feel they must utilize TDF. 

TDF has many important programs, and does a lot of good work. It would better serve its mission if it would more closely align itself with the economic interests of shows that it sells tickets for. 


  1. It's a fact that many/most theatergoers are tourists.
    WHY would we deny them the chance to keep theater going?
    To go back and tell their friends?

    Most of these points are ludicrous, but that sticks out the most...

  2. What a gigantic waste of my time.

    I'll ignore most of these awful ideas as well as your writing skills.

    But...denying tourists?
    They make up a great part of the theater population as well as the economy for New York City.
    WHY would we turn them down for tickets??!

    So they can go back home and tell all their visiting friends, "We can't even get tickets anymore!"

    I've never heard of such an absurd idea. Should Disney only allow Floridians to use a coupon for entry?

    1. Disney has coupons, where oh where can I find one? I love TDF, sometime I can't even afford the discount price for something I want to see, but it all comes to budgeting for what you really want. I think the blogger doesn't realize that even middle class people have many bills to pay and after that is all done, they might have only a little left for recreation, so TDF has guidelines and rules of who can belong and purchase tickets through them, so what's the problem. I wonder does the blogger belong to TDF? Also, many retired people belong to TDF and introduce their younger relatives and their friends to theater for the first time to help make a new audience for this art form. Again, thank you TDF.

    2. I don't belong to TDF.

      I agree that middle class people have a hard time affording theater tickets. I believe that the middle class will ultimately begin to shun the theater unless the economy makes important and lasting improvements.

      The problem with TDF discounts, in addition to its economic unsustainability, is that the rules for these tickets are too often disregarded and ignored. A flood of TDF discounted tickets will discourage the purchase of even TKTS discounts all to the detriment of the shows themselves.

  3. Broadway shows can't afford to subsidize tourists. If they can afford to travel to NYC, they can afford theater tickets, at least via TKTS. Broadway is not a charity.

    My ideas may offend you, but attacking me personally is not particularly intelligent, and is particularly declasse.

    1. I am a performing arts professional and a member of TDF. I travel to NYC once a year (twice if it's at all possible) and stay at a friend's apartment because if I had to stay at a hotel, I wouldn't be able to afford the trip. If I had to purchase full-price Broadway tickets, I wouldn't buy theater tickets at all. How is it "shameful" for TDF to sell tickets to me, but not "shameful" to sell a ticket to a New York-based performing arts professional?

    2. It sounds like you are in exactly the demographic that the TDF discount ticket program was designed to serve. It's too bad that in practice, too many people take unfair advantage of this distribution channel, and by doing so damage the very industry that you seek to enjoy and prosper in.

      Discounts will never go away. I just hope that damaging, unprofitable and abused discounts can be reformed to serve the theater industry, rather than degrade it.

  4. Making NYC an exclusive city that only the rich can afford to visit is absurd.
    People come from all over and deserve to take in every aspect of our city.
    Some come from Europe and stay in hostels or couch surf while others save their entire lives for a small weekend.

    By your theory, New Yorkers should be able to afford the high ticket prices. We live in this luxurious splender of economy after all...

    Denying discounts and organizations such as TDF to tourists and the above 25 crowd is career suicide. We are trying to APPEAL to people, not turn them away.

    Yes, ticket prices are high and it is difficult to see shows when one goes up on TDF and sells out within minutes, but i'd rather see a show sell out, thus keeping it alive, then further deplete our dwindling population of theatergoers.

    Intelligence has nothing to do with it. I don't care for your writing. Point blank.

    1. I have no wish to turn NYC into an exclusive "for the rich only" city. My point is only that the low priced and freely available tickets made available by TDF hurts, not helps the Broadway industry. There is no wish or effort to deny or prohibit anyone from availing themselves of any economically sustainable discounts. A closer reading of my post would be instructive.

      You and others may be confused by the fact that if TDF can offer deeply discounted tickets, then the shows that make these tickets available can survive at that price level. It's an understandable assumption to make, but it is NOT true. The unrestrained distribution of low priced TDF tickets provides warm bodies for shows, not economic survival.

      When a new show is in previews, it is desirable to do this. For a show that is struggling to survive, it's like ingesting sea water to quench a thirst. In an earlier post, I describe how Broadway producers are hurting Broadway in their zeal to maximize their own profits. In todays' missive I flip the coin and show how producers are strangled by "giving it all away" via deeply discounted TDF tickets.

    2. Hello Michael, your case is not with TDF but with the producers, etc that offer tickets to TDF. There are many ticket discount venues for tickets, check Playbill, Theatremania, etc. All of these venues have communication with theater owners, producers, what have you, the reasons they offer tickets at discounts are for many reasons. Who gets the tickets it depends on if a person belongs to a organization that offers tickets that have been discounted. I think producers would rather have butts in seats that might talk up their show to others, then empty seats. Now if your point is to let only certain people have the chance to buy discounted tickets, I don't agree. There are your Must sit in the Orch first 15 rows crowd, then you have the, I'll take any seat that is available even if I have to take my binocs to view the fine points. Most of the time, I just want to be at the live performance and use the binocs if necessary to feel it live. So taking away my right to a discounted ticket that the producers agree to, is something that just doesn't seem right to me.

    3. As I have tried to point out, the actions of Broadway producers often do not do anything to enhance the overall health of the Broadway industry. Price gouging big hits and special events does nothing to broaden audiences or help make fertile the next generation of theater goers. TDF, as an institution, collects fees on tickets it sells. These fees support many worthwhile programs. I have no quibble with their mission, and I applaud all their good works. The fees derived from the TDF discount ticket program are harvested from plays that cannot economically sustain this distribution channel.

      Previews aside, when warm bodies are indeed a good thing to have and ought to be budgeted for, the over reliance of shows on TDF discounts is like having the poorest and most hungry pay for their watered down gruel while the wealthy shows not selling TDF discounts happily praise TDF for their good work.

      Without airing TDF's dirty laundry, which was excluded from my posted email excerpt, the reality is that TDF discount tickets are subject to horrendous abuse and unauthorized resale. This misuse and widespread availability stacks the odds against any show that is struggling to find an audience with only a limited amount of time and a finite amount of money able to be lost in that search.

      I don't seek to take away anyone's right to a discounted ticket. I yearn for a system where producers can profit and theater is available to anyone that wishes to see it. I believe that such a system would exclude both Premium seats and TDF discounts. Since there is not much hope for that ideal, I hope that by highlighting producers inability to act in the interests of the industry as a whole, and the role of enabler that TDF has taken upon itself, may in some way nudge things towards a more sustainable path.

  5. Are you aware of how many of the tickets are sold through TDF when compared to NUMEROUS discount options (Playbill, TheatreMania, Rush, BrodawayBox, Goldstar, etc) available for any particular Broadway show? And each GM offices release a limited number of tickets for a production through TDF.

    I worked in one office, and in fact on average for one show, only about 15-25% of the tickets sold were purchased at full price. 10% were papered!

    And additionally, all your propositions do not take into account the fact that audiences are different for each Broadway show. Shows like The Book of Mormon obviously doesn't need to be comped or made available on TKTS. But what about some of the plays that MTC produces? How about the most recent revival of Godspell? Do you think THAT audience would flock to the theater to pay $130+?

    TDF doesn't exist solely for benevolent charitable reasons despite its designation as a non-profit organization. There is an economic incentive. Just as full-priced tickets are broken up into different prices (e.g. allowing people who value paying $300 for BoM premium seats to purchase it at that price), there are ticket price variance that is offered through TDF and other discounting methods to market to the groups of people who value the cost of theatergoing less than $130. And that market is nonetheless a significant market in the eyes of a producer.

    Prices are rising exponentially because there EXISTS that select small market who simply value the premium seats at the prices that they currently are. But that doesn't negate the people on the lower end of the economic spectrum who simply can't afford them. By completely cutting out that market, you're losing audience members.

  6. That price gouging exists does not mean it is right or correct. Who would use that argument to describe the necessities of life, like food or energy? When prices of staples of life rise to unconscionable levels, social unrest follows, governments are brought down, revolution is in the air. That will never apply to theater tickets, so what might be the result of exponential rises in price levels? I've argued elsewhere, consumers will find substitute outlets for their entertainment.

    No commercial production on Broadway wants to sell deeply discounted TDF tickets. It is simply not part of the business plan, because TDF discount tickets does not yield a meaningful economic benefit, and at the same time degrades alternate revenue streams.

    Your experience does a great job of amplifying my original posting. You mention MTC, a subscription based organization with a large member base. Why should anyone join MTC when deep discount tickets will be available through TDF?

    My main point is, while deeply discounted TDF tickets are a wonderful boon for TDF members, and their multitudes of friends, the existence and overuse by shows, and abuse by TDF members cause deep and irreversable harm to shows that use them, much as an addict would unendingly seek their next vial of crack.

    If you don't think that some shows are worth the price of a full price ticket, why do think the prices are as they are? It is a reality that discounting is integral to the marketing of shows. It's a main buttress for the sky high ticket prices out of reach for all but the most well heeled of theater goers. Each discount attempts to find the highest price point to induce the most fragmented of audiences. The fact of the matter is that TDF discounts, under the guise of benefiting the theater industry sucks the life out of shows that make use of this distribution channel.

  7. tdf sells tickets to shows that cannot sell tickets at a higher price. If tdf did not sell these tickets (at 45 dollars for a broadway show with a 4 dollar per transaction fee added), these tickets would not be bought elsewhere at a higher price. That's the main problem with the post. It makes it seem like TDF subscribers are taking advantage of broadway shows in some way when in reality the broadway shows on TDF are not seen by the audience as worthy (whether rightly or wrongly) of a higher price than the TDF price. Is it really a "discount" ticket if the show is incapable of selling those tickets at any higher price?

  8. Theater goers will always seek to pay the lowest price possible for theater tickets. That is not the problem. The dilemma is when the lowest price available does not sustain the show. Worse still, the wide and repeated availability of tickets at an unsustainable price level eats into ticket sales that a show could actually live on, be it TKTS or any number of other more realistic discounts, or, heaven forfend, full price.

    TDF allows its members a virtually unlimited supply of excessively discounted tickets and takes no great pains to require these members to adhere to TDF rules and regulations. It is this dynamic that is deadly for many shows struggling to survive and find an audience that can pay enough for the show to thrive.