"If you can't describe it in numbers, it ain't real," says the positivist. "Well, who's jukin' the stats?" says I.
As we all know very well statistics and numbers can be used in a variety of different ways. A business's "per unit profit" may be one penny, but a few billions of sales make those pennies add up. If you have expenses of $100,000 and sell one unit at $100,000, why then you've made all of your money back. Anything after that is pure gravy.
Numbers will be the topic of conversation throughout this month – particularly for holiday sales figures. And pundits, gasbags, and soothsayers of every stripe will be scanning poll numbers looking toward the 2012 presidential campaign in the U.S.A. So I thought it might be interesting to look at some numbers.
Not long ago in this space, I argued against going too far into the utilitarian argument in support of the arts. If the arts solely exist to enhance the economic lifeblood of a community, then I'm in the wrong business. Mammon is not a very helpful god, nor is the so-called "market" much comfort for a humanity looking for connection and truth.
Nevertheless, a far wiser man than me noted that it's useful to know the ways of the world. So it seemed beneficial to look at a few numbers and see what we can glean from them.
A number of years ago I had an argument with the late Jeremy Whelan. Despite many fine qualities as a person and as an acting teacher and coach, he possessed a peculiar and idiosyncratic view of history. He argued from a creative view of history. Despite this, his conclusions were often on-the-nose.
We argued about the importance of the effects of the then popular rise of such daytime talk shows as Jerry Springer. I argued that Jerry Springer made noise and gathered some comment, but was never nearly as popular (attracting actual eyes on the screen) as any prime time show.
The larger point is that what makes something exceedingly popular in one way may not hold up if you look at the numbers in another way. For example, as we go to press, much has been made about the initial figures of Sarah Palin's reality show on the TLC cable network. Ms. Palin received just under five million viewers. That's big for TLC and somewhat for cable. (Evidently the numbers sank to apx three million the second week.) Compare that number, however, to the 9.5 million viewers that reruns of Two and a Half Men get in syndication. (Charlie Sheen for president?) Glenn Beck gets more than two million viewers or so each evening. The radio show Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, by contrast, gets about 2.5 million listeners tuning in each week, and Garrison Keillor gets about four million listeners for Prairie Home Companion.
Contrast all of those measly numbers with the just under 19.5 million people who watched NCIS last week. Keillor and PHC did great for NPR stations around the country, but they're not prime time. But that's not their job either.
I have here the annual report on not-for-profit theatre compiled by the Theatre Communications Group for the 2008-09 season. According to TCG some 30 million tickets were sold for non-profit theatre shows. There were 187,000 performances of 17,000 productions. That works out to about 160 tickets sold per performance. And non-profit theatres had a total income just under $1.8 billion.
According to Variety for the same season, Broadway did $943.3 million worth of sales to 12.15 million ticket buyers.
For another weird comparison, the NBA played 1230 games in the 2008-09 season and sold 21,549,238 tickets. The NFL played 256 games in 2009 for 17,469,552 ticket holders.
What can we conclude from this?
One, more than 42 million tickets were sold to people to see professional theatre of some kind in the 2008-09 season. That's a few tickets. That's more tickets than people bought to see professional basketball and football combined. For something that's continually dying (the professional theatre), that's a few people lining up to get in the door and see the death throes.
Two, for the number of tickets sold for the number of performances, it works out to about 160 tickets per performance. Obviously some actors performed for audiences with far more than 160 butts in the seats. So there were some small audiences out there too. But what was the size of the house? 160 people showing up to a 99 seat theatre is a beautiful sell-out. Wahoo! On the other hand, 160 people in a house meant for 800 can be a lonely night – particularly if it's a comedy.
As you read this, you may be in the midst of putting on your annual holiday show – very few companies have gone wrong with A Christmas Carol or The Nutcracker. May all of the chairs in your hall be full with butts. And when it's all over, may you have a peaceful and joyful holiday.