In June of 2009, the NEA released the results of their Arts Participation Survey (download). The overall results shows that arts participation has continued to decline among adults in America since the survey was first conducted in 1982. Attendance for non-musicals was listed at 9.4% and attendance for musicals was 16.7%. That means only 1 out of 10 Americans will see a play and only 1 out of 6 will see a musical. Now, compare these statistics to Neilsen’s latest Three Screen Report (download) that came out in May of 2009. The average American watches 153 hours of television a month.
Everyone knows that people watch more television that theatre, so the data is not surprising. But let’s look at the difference in how the data is measured. Theater going is measured almost in a binary format. Did you or did you not attend. Television is measured in volume. To compare the two reports, you actually have to get the data on the same scale. So, let’s say the average person attending the theatre subscribes to a regional theatre for 6 shows a year and sees 2 broadway musicals a year. About 8 shows a year with an average duration of 2 hours a show for about 16 hours of theatre going. But only 1 out of 6 peple are attending any kind of performance, so you get an overall average of maybe 3 hours of theatre watching a year or about 15 min. each month. Compare 15 min. of monthly theatre going to 153 hours of television waching, you get about a 1 to 600 ratio. And I’m only comparing television to theatre. If we included music, video games, movies, and sporting events, the entertainment landscape would be immensely huge and theatre only a small spec on the horizon. But by comparing like data sets, it might change how theatre marketers think about their strategy.
Theatre marketers are asking primarily one of two questions: “how do I get our exisiting audience to return next year?” and “how do I develop a new audience?”. The problem is that the artistic mission of most theatres, which defines the companies niche within the theatre community, also ends up influencing the marketing. If the theatre’s mission is “We do heightened language plays” or “We do physical ensemble theatre”, you will see similar statements in the marketing material. What this does is ends up constraining the strategy. The theatre ends up marketing their stylistic approach to the existing theatre audience rather then marketing their theatre in the wider entertainment landscape.
If theatres want to truely grow their audience, they need to see that theatre is a very small entertainment niche. That niche can expand, but only by marketing the uniqueness of not just their particular show or style, but the uniqueness of theatre-going itself. Why does the music-lover, video-gamer or sports fanatic want to attend the theatre instead of their usual past-time? Asking that fundamental question might be a better way to develop a new audience that fuels the fire behind new social media campaigns.
So if you are involved with a theatre, remember that you don’t have a niche in the theatre, your theatre is an entertainment niche.