Broadway, live in your living room

Television: A new venture believes it can bring live theater to the small screen on a pay-per-view basis.

March 20, 2000|By Bruce Weber | Bruce Weber,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- "Smokey Joe's Cafe," the musical revue of songs by Leiber and Stoller, closed on a Sunday after a nearly five-year run, but over the final weekend at the Virginia Theater there were still rehearsals going on. Not onstage: The cast members had their parts pretty well in hand.

But with nine cameras in the auditorium, a 10th backstage, and sound and camera trucks outside on West 52nd Street, a new company called the Broadway Television Network was getting its act together. For three nights they honed their cues during performances, and during the Sunday matinee they filmed the show, preserving its farewell.

The weekend was a run-through for the company's main business, an enterprise never before attempted: the regular live presentation of Broadway productions on pay-per-view television. As early as this fall and through the next five years, the company plans to start bringing the first of a dozen Broadway shows to the home screen as they are being performed in the theater. It is a multimillion-dollar experiment in expanding the reach of live theater to the remote and modest-income markets it has yet to penetrate, as well as an effort to promote the Broadway brand name.

Broadway Television Network is one of two new ventures seeking to meld Broadway and television and to secure for the theater the place it has never had in the electronic entertainment universe. The second venture, a different approach to melding the two media, is Broadway Digital Entertainment, and it has the backing of Michael Fuchs, the former chairman of HBO. It does not plan to present live Broadway on television.

"There is no business in just doing Broadway pay-per-view, or I guarantee I'd have been in the business at HBO," Fuchs said. But Broadway Digital does intend to enter another dicey arena, producing new shows for Broadway that it will sell to home viewers as part of a subscription package.

The companies share the belief that widening access to the Internet and to the broadband technology that promises more varied and efficient options for delivery of home entertainment will make the packaging of live and home theater economically viable.

Their chief executives sound many of the same notes. "If there are 30 or 40 million people worldwide who love the theater, they will all, eventually, be going to Web sites that deal with the theater," said Basil Hero, president of Broadway Digital. "There are so many people out there who are not being served."

Bruce Brandwen, president of Broadway Television, added, "Our concept is to add the electronic component to Broadway."

The power of television

Broadway producers and theater owners have long understood the power of television to market their product: The reason a Tony nomination is seen as so crucial for a musical has less to do with the honor conferred than with the opportunity to present a number from the show on the awards broadcast. But they also fear television as an alien being. From the television side, the theater is often seen as archaic, and the commingling of the two as a mismatch.

"For sure, about entertainment nobody knows anything," said Brian Grazer, the chairman of Imagine Films, which also produces television shows such as "Felicity" and "Sports Night." "But the arrows of our culture, whether in music or television or movies, are all pointing younger and more conceptual. One would have to ask, `Is theater on television in that direction?' "

The theater has a rich and venerable history as television programming fodder, from a 40-minute adaptation of a spy story, "The Queen's Messenger," which was broadcast from a studio in Schenectady, N.Y., in 1928, to the production of "Death of a Salesman," which was filmed in a special performance just after its closing in November and broadcast on Showtime in January. But current shows have rarely appeared on the air in anything other than excerpts, and live presentations from Broadway have long faced skepticism, if not downright opposition, from theater owners and theater unions.

One reason for this conflict is that Broadway's live entertainment is attenuated on the screen. "It's not live when you see it on TV," said Emanuel Azenberg, a producer who expressed frustration at Broadway's inability to use television to its advantage. "It's not dead. But it's not live."

The second reason is the fear that once a show appears on television, people will be less likely to buy a ticket, potentially shortening a performance's run and undermining the appeal of a road production. The last time a Broadway show ran live on television was in 1982, a pay-per-view broadcast of "Sophisticated Ladies." Since then attempts by producers to arrange pay-per-view broadcasts of two shows, "Jelly's Last Jam" and "Damn Yankees," have been squelched by labor and rights issues.

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