Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Sky Probably IS Falling

Over at the HuffPost, Ivan Katz has some things to say about the Met HD broadcasts and about San Francisco Opera. He starts out sounding as if he's going one way, then seems to go another. I'm not a regular reader of his column; my previous experience of it was his blast at the amount of money LA Opera lost on the Freyer Ring.

Yes, they did blow through a lot of money (note the $14 million bond the company issued to cover their debts); yes, there should have been more constraints put on Freyer, yes, they made scheduling mistakes. However, critics did not "largely detest it." I read strongly positive reviews from Mark Swed, Tim Mangen, Anne Midgette, and Brian at OutWestArts. I wrote one myself, because the one opera I got to was among the most engaging and interesting productions I've ever seen. Note that Katz didn't see any of the production himself, so he's relying on other, un-linked-to critics, and maybe the production photos.

But the current column goes into some areas I have thought about, and I have a few things to say about them. Briefly, you should take just about everything he says with a big grain of salt.

The first Met HD broadcast was in January, 2007, just about four years ago, meaning the planning was underway a year or two before that. Katz's claim that the Met has "reinvented itself on the fly" as a response to the economic downturn is not supportable; the planning started in 2005 or 2006, when a few people were very worried but well before the crises of 2008.

He speculates that the gargantuan Zeffirelli productions are being retired because of how they would look in HD broadcasts. Can he tie the retirements to any actual HD broadcasts? The Zef Traviata is gone, but there's no broadcast this year of the well-received new Decker production. The Boheme and Turandot productions: still around, but they're not being broadcast and they have already been in one HD broadcast each. I doubt they are going anywhere. [Updated following information kindly provided by a commenter.]

He's skeptical that the Met HD broadcasts are a money-making proposition. Well, let's do the math.

There are something like 1,500 theaters showing the broadcasts. Let's assume, conservatively, that each seats 100 people. I believe that number is probably closer to 200 or 250, but whatever. We're talking about a minimum of 150,000 available seats per broadcast. Friends who attend in various locations report sellouts and overflow; my local multiplex regularly opens a second theater for these broadcasts.

Tickets are priced around US$20. That's $3 million in ticket sales if 100 seats  are sold at 1500 venues. (Again, I believe that is conservative.) The Met splits the take 50/50 with the theaters, according to a reliable source I read, possibly Anne Midgette or possible a Times writer. There are 12 broadcasts this season, so we're talking about $36 million revenue, with $18 million to the Met.

I don't know what the production costs are for the broadcasts, but I see no way that the Met is not making a profit on the broadcasts. The equipment is paid for or is booked as a long-term capital cost. They're paying for camera crews and director and...the item I know nothing about....transmission costs. Still. I bet they're making money.

He speculates that all of this could change if the unions want a bigger slice of the pie. I do not think the unions will get their backs up about this, given the economy and the fact that the union contracts undoubtedly were already renegotiated to allow for these broadcasts.

He speculates that they want or have a monopoly on opera broadcasts. They're already failed at this; European houses are started to get some broadcasts via a different system. My local theater, the Grand Lake, has started carrying some of those.

Lastly, his view of David Gockley? Well, I've read the same Notes from the General Director that he has. I think Gockley might be telling the truth AND might be trying to 1) soften up the unions 2) get people alarmed.

I mean, if 12 families are producing 50% of donations, that is a problem. (Is it true? I should take a look at the donor pages that are published in every program and see if it could be. For one thing, what, exactly, does "12 families" mean? Is one of those families named "Hewlett"? In that case, there could be multiple revenue streams coming in, from the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation and from sundry family members. So "one family" might mean five or ten different donors.

 Katz talks about desirable efficiency; I see a revenue stream that could disappear all too fast, and that somehow isn't being expanded to the Bay Area's New Rich.

Who do I mean by that? If you look at the donor lists, you'll see a few names missing: Ellison, McNeary, Brin, Page, Schmidt*....somehow, the current generation of Silicon Valley multi-million....er...billionaires hasn't yet been roped in. One reason is that some of those folks prefer social justice and medical philanthropy to arts philanthropy, and perhaps that'll change over time.

But one of them is just interested in building boats and getting concessions from the City of San Francisco. I wouldn't expect him to be ponying up.

So there you have my thoughts. Is the sky falling? Well, it just might be. Gockley's various notes indicate a company with both current problems and long-term structural issues. I don't think Ivan Katz's analysis is at all persuasive. Take a look at the notes yourself, if you have San Francisco Opera programs around, and judge for yourself.

*The fine print: yes, I do work for Sergey, Larry, and Eric. If I had any influence with them, I'd use it.


bgn said...

The Zeffirelli Boheme & Turandot productions have already been broadcast in HD--the former in 2008, then latter in 2009.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Ah, thanks - good to know, and one more hole in his conjectures.

John Marcher said...

Katz is a doof and I think anything written about opera on the Huff Post should be viewed as suspect- after all, they printed Carrie Delmar's crap as well.

The Met is making money off the broadcasts- netting about 8 million last year: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703376504575492150516523976.html?mod=WSJ_LifeStyle_Lifestyle_5#articleTabs%3Darticle

Numbers don't lie, but it appears some people who write for the Huff Post are certainly fast and loose with the truth.

As for Gockley, well, I wrote about this in November and am surprised no one has really picked up the ball:

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thank you for the WSJ link!

I am also amazed that neither the Chron nor SFCV has gotten to reporting on Gockley's Notes.

John Marcher said...

8 mil may be "chump change" in the grand scheme of the Met's budget, but it pays for a lot of salaries, yes?

What is up with SFCV, btw? ;) They should be all over this subject!