Legit theatre fans are increasingly being offered the option of staying home and watching a Broadway show in the relative comfort of their living rooms, courtesy of television. The list of stage shows that have been or will be broadcast in the latter half of this year includes the Jujamcyn-produced revue "Smokey Joe's Café," Nathan Lane in the Roundabout's revival of "The Man Who Came to Dinner," Calista Flockhart and the Los Angeles company of the drama "Bash," and David Hare's one-person show, "Via Dolorosa." Next year, viewers can expect to see "Putting It Together," "The Laramie Project," "Wit," "On Golden Pond," and "Peter Pan."
Two relatively new companies are at the forefront of the new trend, Broadway Television Network (BTN) and Broadway Digital Entertainment (BDE), which is itself split into two halves, Broadway Tonight (BT) and Broadway Theatre Archive (which, surprisingly, never seems to be referred to by its acronym). The companies operate differently, with BTN broadcasting already popular shows, including last weekend's pay-per-view airing of "Smokey Joe's Café," and BT planning to mount original shows for limited runs, and then broadcast them when the runs end. Broadway Theatre Archive will devote itself to marketing shows that have already been taped and broadcast.
Theatre professionals are of two minds about the recent trend of airing legit productions. On the one hand, they know that the broadcasts will bring legit theatre (albeit in a non-legit format) to television viewers who would be unable to attend the shows for economic, geographic, or health-related reasons. On the other hand, some worry that if prospective audiences can see a show for free while lounging in a La-Z-Boy, they might not be inclined to pay $65-85 to sit in cramped seats, fighting for control of the armrest and resisting the urge to assault some fellow theatregoer who's noisily crumpling a candy wrapper.
One group that has been especially concerned about televising theatre has been Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). As the union of musicians who play in the pits of legit shows, Local 802 worries that broadcasts may hasten the closing of any production that is televised, thereby scuttling members' longtime jobs. At Actors' Equity, the performers union, the opinions are divided: some officials express the same concerns as the musicians (using an erstwhile production of "Much Ado About Nothing" that tanked after its broadcast as an example), while others argue the increased exposure helps attract new fans to legit theatre (and sometimes increases traffic to the aired show, as happened with "Riverdance").
Those unions, along with the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers (SSDC) and United Scenic Artists (USA), have been forced to deal with the increasing numbers of televised stage shows. No longer content to handle each stage-to-broadcast transition individually, as was the practice when such transfers were rarities, the groups have recognized the need to establish standard minimums for the talent involved.
The only association that told Back Stage it had no specific contractual language to cover broadcast rights was the Dramatists Guild, which said it was up to each author (or, more likely, the author's representative) to negotiate a suitable compensation.
Actors' Equity has established minimums, but made it clear when discussing the situation that performers may be able to negotiate higher rates of pay, depending on their clout. After a series of meetings with BTN, the union made a special agreement, where all performers who appear on camera receive a minimum of $4,000; understudies and other cast members who do not appear are due at least $2,000. (That rate was negotiated for live broadcasts, which Equity spokesperson David Lotz told Back Stage BTN had originally intended to do exclusively. Eventually "Smokey Joe's Café" was taped for a later broadcast.) Companies other than BTN are required to pay the actors at least two weeks of their Equity salaries.
In addition to the those payments, (which might be compared to commercial actors' "session fees"), producers must also pay the actors applicable SAG or AFTRA rates for the actual broadcast, depending on whether the show is taped or filmed. The performers are waived from requirements that they join the broadcast unions for their first such job, but after one waiver, they must become members.
Equity does not differentiate between network, public, and cable broadcasts, but does consider pay-per-view airings to be different, and handles those on a case-by-case basis. In the case of "Smokey Joe," the arrangement included royalty participation for performers—at least potentially. If the show was sold to 1.25% of all potential homes (those with access through cable or satellite), the actors would split 3.6% of the producers' gross; at 1.5%, they would split 4%, 1.75 would entitle them to 4.5% of the producers' gross; and if the show were to be seen in 2% of potential homes, they would share 5%.
Shows that tape after their run has ended are still bound by Equity rules if the tapings (or live broadcasts) occur immediately after the closing. "Equity rules are still in effect 16 to 19 weeks after the last performance," according to Equity Deputy Patrick Lee.
Equity also discourages TV producers from replacing the original stage performers with other actors: "A replaced actor is still due two weeks' salary," Lee said. "However, if an actor leaves of his or her own volition, they are not due the money."
Other Pros, Other Agreements
For directors and choreographers, SSDC has "an electronic use provision in our collective bargaining with the League of American Theatres and Producers," according to Executive Director Barbara Hauptman. "It sets a minimum, and it's up to members to negotiate a higher rate at the outset of the contract." She told Back Stage that SSDC also has an agreement with BTN for pay-per-view broadcasts, but it will run out the first of next year.
"Our relationships are with the producers of the Broadway show," Hauptman stressed, "and not with PBS or whatever. For instance, when Showtime did "Death of a Salesman," it was the Broadway producer who had to make sure [director] Robert Falls got paid."
Hauptman also said SSDC members whose work ends up on a television screen are not required to join the Directors Guild of America, the association of film and TV directors.
The designers in USA have also negotiated with BTN in advance, but the guild works out all other deals individually. For the HBO broadcast of John Leguizamo's "Freak," for instance, there was a one-time buyout to compensate the set designer, costume designer, and lighting designer. A different deal was negotiated for "Death of a Salesman," because Showtime has a smaller audience. "PBS is getting the most equitable deal for broadcasting,'" USA spokesperson Paul Moore told Back Stage. "With the Roundabout [which is producing the Broadway revival of "The Man Who Came to Dinner" that PBS will broadcast live in October], we have in our collective bargaining agreement that any third party must negotiate with us."
(An interesting point about "The Man Who Came to Dinner" is that, although it is to be broadcast live, PBS is taking no chances. The network will tape the show for the week preceding the airdate and will have a tape ready to show if some unforeseen problem occurs.)
Local 802's arrangement with BTN, reached "after several difficult years of negotiation," according to Bill Dennison, assistant to the union's president, stipulates that musicians must be paid slightly less than $4,000 for their services during the first year of the agreement. During the second year, that goes up to slightly less than $4,500. Conductors are paid double. Past shows have "paid according to [existing] AFM rates for cable TV and Public Television," Dennison said.
With so many negotiations, and expenses, required for producers to bring legit shows to the small screen, it remains to be seen whether television maintains its appetite for them; that will presumably depend on whether audiences want to see the shows. That, in turn, may depend on whether the shows are cast with recognizable names that appeal to viewers, and as more Broadway shows employ TV stars like Cheryl Ladd (currently in "Annie Get Your Gun") and Jean Smart (in "The Man Who Came to Dinner"), the lines get a bit blurred. Ironically, "The Man Who Came to Dinner" could make a Broadway star out of Smart—and a TV star, finally, out of Nathan Lane.