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The Public as Critic and Consumer Advocate: Zagat's Latest Theatre Guide

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Perhaps there are no earth-shattering revelations in the recently released summer edition of the 2004 Zagat Survey New York City Theater Guide, covering 62 Broadway and Off-Broadway productions as reviewed by 15,760 theatregoers. Still, the public opinion poll, conceived as a consumer guide to theatre, does offer some interesting insights about the habits of audience members besides their ratings of plays and musicals.

"We hear so much about the high cost of tickets," notes Tim Zagat, co-founder of Zagat Survey, a series of consumer-based reviews of restaurants, movies, music, and, most recently, theatre, among other leisure activities. "But we didn't realize what percentage of theatregoers buys discount tickets. I was astonished to learn that if you add up the 'always,' 'often,' and 'sometimes' purchasers of theatre discounts"—one of the questions the survey pitched—"we're talking 81%."

Zagat was equally intrigued by the response to the question "Which do you consider the most annoying distraction at a theatre performance?" Twenty-four percent cited "people blocking the view." Only 2% said "uncomfortable seating," Zagat's personal irritation in many theatres.

"I thought that percentage would be much higher. Look, I'm a big guy and I'm frequently uncomfortable sitting in most Broadway houses."

Zagat maintains that beyond confirming or disputing his own personal preferences, the surveys are potentially significant on many fronts, most pointedly from the producer and advertiser's perspective—not to mention the theatre landlord. Wouldn't it be useful for him to know, for example, what the public wants or doesn't want in a theatre before he hires architects and engineers to build one? The point is, the landlord could get that information just by checking this third and most recent Zagat theatre survey.

Another example of the survey's possible applications: In response to the question "Where do you usually purchase theatre tickets?," the survey found that a plurality of theatregoers—34%—buy their tickets on the Internet, while 21% obtain them at the box office and 19% purchase them at a TKTS discount ticket booth. The implications for advertisers are enormous—not simply in where they advertise, but also how.

Zagat's fundamental contention is that the critics (whose reviews are cited in ads) are simply out of sync with the public's response to plays and musicals. And that if the producer-advertisers paid greater heed to public tastes—as reflected in a Zagat guide—many shows might have a longer shelf life.

"Critics go to a play to criticize. That is their job," says Zagat. "They hardly ever give a show a complete rave. Also, they're forced to go to everything. So it's not surprising that they become jaundiced. Theatregoers, on the other hand, are going because they want to go. They're prejudiced in the show's favor ahead of time. They go to have a good time and be entertained. And they don't see as many shows as critics, although our survey participants see on average 15 shows a year, which is more than most theatregoers.

"In any case," Zagat continues, "we have found that the audiences in our surveys are overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the shows they've seen. Almost all of the current productions on and off Broadway get a 'yes' vote from at least 75% of those who participated in response to the most important question, 'Would you recommend this show?' "

Using a 30-point scale, participants (in their 20s through 60s and beyond) rate each show on the quality of its acting, story, and production values, in addition to the aforementioned central question, "Would you recommend this show to your friends?" Along with the reviews, the guide ranks top choices in such categories as adaptation, star turns, revivals, family favorites, dancing, limited runs, "campy," and "deeply moving."

In the category of Broadway musical, "Avenue Q" came in first with 96% recommending it. "The Normal Heart" was the highest-rated drama, with 97% giving it a passing grade.

Not surprisingly, public opinion is very much in tune with that of Tony voters. "Avenue Q" and "I Am My Own Wife," which were highly endorsed shows in the spring edition of the guide, went on to garner the Tonys for best musical and best play, respectively.

The response to the question "Are you more likely to see a show that has won a Tony?" proves the point. Almost half the respondents said yes.

"I'm actually surprised it wasn't much higher," Zagat remarks.

Asked if he foresees a time when the Zagat theatre guide might replace the theatre critic, Zagat says, "The survey is not in competition with the critic or perceived as an alternative to the critic, but rather a supplement to the critic. The survey is just a different way of viewing the theatre. I think it's worthwhile to know what the majority feels."

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