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Jo Caird: As Seen On TV? - When Theatre Looks to Television for Audiences

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Watching Downton Abbey on Sunday night, I was surprised to see an advert for the National Theatre's production of War Horse in the West End. I don't watch a lot of television, so theatre adverts on TV aren't something I've ever really been aware of, and it got me thinking.

I wrote a little while ago about theatre trailers, basically concluding that I dislike them because they don't convey much of what makes theatre theatre, ie. its liveness (see below for the link). But I think this is a slightly different issue. Lots of companies make trailers for shows these days, but you won't see them on TV. They're posted to theatre websites such as this one, circulated on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook and made available on theatre companies' websites for prospective punters to check out. In other words, they're seen largely by people seeking them out, people who already go to the theatre and are trying to decide whether or not to see a particular show.

TV adverts, on the other hand, are viewed passively by people who happen to be watching whatever programme the adverts are interrupting. I almost wrote 'accidentally', rather than 'passively', but of course there's nothing accidental about a process that is meticulously planned by marketeers drawing on a wealth of audience demographics statistics. If you see an advert for one of the few shows that are occasionally advertised on TV, it's because a calculated risk has been taken that you will be receptive to it.

If you're interested in Downton Abbey, you might be up for going to see War Horse, another drama set around the time of the First World War. If you're a fan of Glee, you might also enjoy the musical Wicked. If you're into wildlife documentaries, you'd probably get a kick out of The Lion King. Okay, I made that last one up, but still, you get the idea.

What's encouraging about the fact that theatre productions are increasingly being advertised on television is that advertisers are making their assumptions on what will sell to whom based on audience transferability. I don't want to be premature in my optimism here, or to read too much into a set of decisions that have been made based purely on a desire to increase profits of West End shows, but it's great news that advertisers are acknowledging that there is enough of an audience crossover between theatre and television to make this presumably very pricy advertising worthwhile.

Theatre is never going to be as mainstream as television – even if every other barrier is removed, television is always going to be the easier, and therefore more popular option, because you can enjoy it in the comfort of your own home. But it seems like finally the two art forms are getting closer together in terms of their audiences.

The War Horse TV campaign is undoubtedly the most promising of the examples I've given. Television audiences are already familiar with West End musicals via the influence of programmes such as How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? and Over the Rainbow, where members of the public go through an extended, publicly voted audition process in the hope of being cast in a leading West End musical theatre role. Straight plays are less familiar, and, given that they are still regarded as elitist, where musicals are not, are a more difficult sell. If just a few of the 10 million or so people that watch Downton Abbey each episode (this number is based on the viewing figures for the first series), decide to take a chance on War Horse and like what they see (and why wouldn't they, it's a brilliant show), that's thousands of potential new theatre-goers, who will hopefully go on to take further chances on other shows.

I still don't think theatre trailers, whether on TV or not, do their productions justice, but if they can tempt new audiences into theatres, I'm certainly willing to give them a chance.


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