TRG blog: Why it’s so hard to program a balanced season
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TRG Blog: Analysis from TRG Arts

Why it’s so hard to program a balanced season

Jill Robinson | August 23, 2016 9:06 AM

Photo: Chris Devers via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Cue the Dies Irae—it’s August. This time of year brings single ticket on-sale day for many performing arts organizations, also known as the day of reckoning. Do the titles that your organization programmed actually resonate with your community? Your single ticket sales will tell you loud and clear.

It’s extremely difficult to program a “perfect” season. Lots of factors play into artistic programming decisions. We have identified nine for our upcoming online workshop on data-driven artistic planning:

  • Artistic or program availability
  • Time of year (holiday, renewal season, etc)
  • Artistic director’s/curator’s vision
  • Requests from donors/board
  • Artistic needs for the ensemble
  • Audience opinion
  • Commercial appeal/demand
  • Community engagement potential
  • Appeal to specific demographic segment
  • And, of course, mission

There are scores of others that you might use (and we welcome your thoughts in the comments section below). As you look at the list above, you may notice that these factors address not only what to program, but how to balance programming. This is often the most difficult thing in programming a season, and the cause of much rancor internally. 

Diametrically opposed?

Conflict often surfaces when organizations have to balance factors having to do with demand. Tensions exist as teams reconcile costs and revenues, and of course: everyone wants every program to be in demand by audiences. TRG Arts has observed two main polarities when it comes to demand, and (perhaps surprisingly) these polarities can be in alignment more than we think:

-        The desire to program commercially popular works. Many managers push for more popular programs with commercial appeal, for understandable reasons: demand drives volume and revenues, and creates full houses. But the reality is, an organization can blockbuster itself to death. The people who buy blockbuster programs are usually brand-new to the organization and are buying a title more than an art form. They are the most expensive and the hardest to keep audiences. Commercially popular programs help revenues and volume in near-term, but aren’t as successful in helping build and maintain audience loyalty to an organization.

-        The desire to program with the “art” and the artists as the driver. Adventurous, innovative, and sometimes less in-demand programming for which artistic and curatorial staff advocate is critically important. It grows artistic capacity, enables articulation of artistic vision and purpose, and it often plain and simply fulfills on mission. Here’s the potential surprise: it actually helps build sustainable audiences and patrons. It’s not that this type of programming causes them to be more loyal; but once we’ve begun to build loyalty, these patrons begin to trust us and are willing to experiment, growing their preferences and interests along the way. This is a win-win for organization and patron, albeit with a longer timetable for revenue and loyalty growth.

Programming by category

At TRG, we also hear a good deal of organizational dialogue about the balance of programming across a variety of programmatic categories. Many organizations program events that fall into general artistic “buckets.” Artistic directors base decisions not only on commercial appeal, but also the genres (almost like product lines) that patrons have come to expect from them. For example, Actors Theatre of Louisville has identified that their programming falls into the following categories:

  • Premieres
  • Holiday/family
  • Comedy
  • Shakespeare

Kansas City Repertory Theatre balances the following programming categories:

  • African-American
  • Classic
  • Holiday
  • Known musical
  • New to Kansas City
  • Solo work

The goal is usually for each season to contain programming in each of those individual categories. Through data analysis, we’re learning that each category has varying ability to draw new audiences and engage core audiences. Patrons who attend each type of programming crossover in their attendance with other categories in differing ways; and the patrons who attend these different categories churn, or quit attending the organization, at different rates. For example, patrons who attend holiday programming often churn at a high rate, whereas patrons who attend new works typically have very low churn rates.  Both Kansas City Rep and Actor’s Theatre are using this data analysis as context for planning and artistic investment.

Not just “what” but “who”

What if we thought of programming not just in terms of the “what,” but also of the “who”? The Cultch, a multi-disciplinary performing arts center in Vancouver, also approached TRG about an analysis of its artistic programming and its impact on patron behavior. What was particularly interesting was that this organization wanted to look at programming not only from genre buckets like the ones described above, but from a “core values” perspective. The Cultch has thought about how their institutional values and programming correspond, as well as whom they sought to serve. Their categories looked like this:

  • new audiences
  • current audiences
  • family
  • indigenous community: programs for/with the specific native communities in Vancouver that The Cultch seek to serve
  • topical: programs that meet the topic of the day
  • diversity/disability: programs for/with diverse and disabled communities
  • gender politics: programs that address women’s and LGBTQ community issues
  • partners: programs that make connections with other arts orgs and artists, to raise their profile and to demonstrate community collaboration
  • unique: programs that no other Vancouver organization presents

You might look at these categories and make some conclusions based on your own audiences. But as is so often the case when you test a hypothesis, there were surprises. 

  • Which category attracted the most new patrons? If you guessed “new audiences,” guess again. The gender politics and topical categories have the highest proportion of new single ticket buyers.
  • Topical programming had the highest churn rate. The gender politics category was average. So, while both categories attracted many new patrons, those who attended “gender politics” programming were more likely to come to The Cultch again.
  • Patrons who attend indigenous programming are loyal to indigenous programming. They tend to attend only indigenous programming and don’t cross-over into over programming categories.

Follow the data and see where it goes

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. If you’re an artistic director, you are not likely to be the most data-interested person in the organization. That’s ok.

I’ll let you in on a secret. Studying data on artistic programming isn’t going to tell you a formula for the perfect season. While that might disappoint the number-crunchers, artistic directors will breathe a sigh of relief. It’s not meant to shut you down or limit your choices. It’s meant to give you context and free you from others’ assumptions. When speaking to artistic directors, we can’t say this enough: your core audience trusts you. They are excited to attend what you’re excited to program.

Aren’t you curious about what your data would say? And how it might free your conversations?

Learn more about using data to make artistic programming decisions in our upcoming online workshop, featuring:

-       Ben Cameron, President of the Jerome Foundation, and former arts program director at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation

-       Leaders from Kansas City Repertory Theatre, including Executive Director Angela Gieras and Artistic Director Eric Rosen

-       Heather Redfern, Executive Director of The Cultch

This three-part online workshop will explore data-driven artistic planning, present case study results, and provide participants with take-home tools that will help organizations evaluate their own circumstances and take next steps. The workshop begins September 28. Register by September 23. Learn more here>>


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Case Study: Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma

Annual operating budget up 32% in 5 seasons

Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma 
 Photo: Joseph Mills

After a poor year for earned revenue in 2012, Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma (LTO) had rebounded and was experiencing a growth spurt. In 2013, Director of Marketing Danyel Siler had turned her attention to single tickets.

Her hard work had paid off, but season tickets were still a challenge. “Season tickets were steadily declining,” she said. “The season ticket campaign had been done the same way for years, maybe even decades. And we blamed the fall on the trend that subs were declining everywhere. Our executive director, artistic director, and I all knew something needed to change, but we didn’t know what.”

Read More>>


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