Will The Embargo Hold?

07.12.11 | 7 Comments

CATEGORIES critics, ideas, journalism, marketing, rabble rousing, social media, theatrical ecosystem

It’s a great word. “Embargo.” It seems to come from a different age, or a world in which brinksmanship over major issues comes into play. Oil embargo. Trade embargo. But it’s alive, if not exactly well, in the relationship between the media and those that they cover.

In the past 36 hours, there have been some very interesting comments on Twitter via #2amt about “embargoing” reviews of arts events. The primary participants have been Trey Graham of NPR, Peter Marks of The Washington Post, Alli Houseworth from Woolly Mammoth Theatre and Nella Vera of The Public Theater. As a “recovering” publicist, I’ve lobbed in a few thoughts as well, but I though the issue was worth more than a few 140 character salvos.

In brief summary: there has been a longstanding “gentleman’s agreement” (pardon my patronymic) between arts groups and the media that cover them that while productions may be seen by the press in advance of the official opening at designated performances, reviews will be embargoed for release until that official opening occurs. This has been in place for some time, although it is not theatrical tradition from days of yore – it is something that has been in place in the U.S. for not more than 50 years and is, I believe, an even more recent phenomenon in England.

Social media has upended this polite détente (as has, perhaps, Spider-Man, but for this discussion, let’s declare that an anomaly and move past it), since we now have personal media platforms that allow any audience member to broadcast their own opinions immediately upon exiting a theatre, if not during the performance itself. So the major media, with more traditional roots, finds itself either days or weeks behind in reporting on a cultural event while the court of public opinion renders verdicts left and right, or they have to report on that very public opinion before issuing their own.

Marks has commented that he is precluded from tweeting his opinions in advance of his review appearing; Frank Rizzo of The Hartford Courant was tweeting his thoughts on a show at the Williamstown Theatre Festival the very night he saw it, although in that case it was the press opening. There’s obviously no industry-wide practice and every outlet is formulating its own approach.

I should make clear that none of these journalists are sneaking into preview performances to which they’re not invited. They are respecting whatever preview period the company or producers have requested; they just chafe against having to wait, either out of professional courtesy to an externally imposed release date or an internal policy which dictates adherence to the print date.

I also need to state my belief that the performing arts do not truly come alive until they’re before an audience, and I believe that artists should have a reasonable amount of time to work on their creations in front of an audience (yes, a paying audience appropriately advised as to the show’s inchoate form) before opinions are rendered. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter and the like have certainly made it impossible to completely manage such a protected environment and that’s just a reality of our world; to rail against it is foolish and unproductive. The question is whether major media (old or new), with its vast reach, should play by the old rules, or adopt the “embargoes be damned” attitude that the public has unknowingly employed.

For arts groups, one rationale for the embargo has been to achieve a “roadblock” effect with their reviews – a great many come out on the same day, having a better chance of achieving traction in the public’s mind. But as members of the press will often say, they are not marketing arms for the arts, but reporters or writers of opinion, so why must they adhere to a marketing or press plan? Frankly, so long as journalists don’t start writing about works of art before they are acknowledged to be complete, this practice may have to fall under the weight of the populist-driven social media.

As for tweeting a mini-opinion in advance of a full review, I have to say I don’t think that serves anyone. If the public, as some posit, want only bite-sized chunks of information, then critics are playing into their hands and hastening their own demise. After all, if you know a review is pro or con, will you necessarily look for a more nuanced appraisal a day or two later? Will the craft of reviewing at long last be reduced, in all arts, to the thumbs-up/thumbs-down approach popularized by Siskel and Ebert? Does anyone want reviews to be nothing but capsules, star ratings or a little man and his chair?

I must confess to puzzlement about how much the traditional media is approaching social media. Instead of using it to deepen its own coverage, since website space is less dear than newsprint, and the reach unfettered by geography and logistics, some papers undermine their own print versions in their race to populate a Twitter feed. The New York Times, inexplicably, shares virtually all of their Sunday arts coverage through Twitter two or three days before the Sunday paper is out, rendering the section old news by the time it appears fully online or (yes, I’m old) on my doorstep.

I will say I’m intrigued by critics like Marks or the prolific Terry Teachout, who will actively engage with their readers on social media, breaking down the ivory tower mentality cherished by critics only a generation ago. The idea that critics will interact with individuals, and perhaps artists, in a public forum, is tremendously exciting to me, and may well be the best thing to happen to artist/critic relations in many years. Indeed, might early tweets result in critics getting feedback and perspective before their final verdict is rendered?

As for the embargo: I think it has begun to crumble and that erosion will only accelerate as every single person who cares to becomes their own media mogul and true stars of the medium begin to achieve influence akin to that afforded by old media. I say, as long as the artists’ work is done, let’s be happy that the press is so eager to cover us. But I caution the press not to be so eager to adopt the new paradigm that they undermine themselves, leading to ever-briefer, ever-more-marginalized assessments of artists’ work.

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Howard Sherman

Howard Sherman has nearly three decades of both executive and staff experience at such companies as American Theatre Wing, O'Neill Theatre Center, Geva Theatre, Goodspeed Musicals, Hartford Stage, Manhattan Theatre Club and Westport Country Playhouse. He tweets as @hesherman.

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  • Guest

    “But as members of the press will often say, they are not marketing arms
    for the arts, but reporters or writers of opinion, so why must they
    adhere to a marketing or press plan?”

    I think some critics might disagree with this point. My experience with the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s theatre critic leads me to believe he acknowledges his role in advocating for the arts as a whole and for theatre companies doing good work by being willing to tailor (though never to compromise) his output to improve the fortunes of local companies. The timing of soft news stories and the mixed-to-bad reviews that wind up coming off like moderate praise often reinforce the marketing plans of local theatres without straying into the land of collusion.

    • Howard Sherman

      Advocates? Absolutely. The greatest advocates for the arts in the media are the people who have the opportunity to cover it. But extensions of marketing or p.r. plans? No. They are independent, and will cover what they choose to cover, in their own way.

  • eg82

    Hey Howard, nice to see you on 2AMT!

    A couple of thoughts: as arts coverage in many parts of the country dries up I think there’s less of a critical mass of reviews coming out on the same day, especially if you’re in a small or midsized city.

    Also, I think our culture has become so fragmented that we’re all off in our own little niches of interest. So tweets or FB postings about a show probably attract those who are already interested in theatre. We know it’s not the whole story but we want those tidbits because we’re interested in the subject and in the process. And we’re probably going to read the full review anyway. (I mean frankly, why would you follow Peter Marks if you’re not already interested in theatre?)

    But a review in a newspaper or on TV or radio has the chance of attracting much more of a general audience. You have a chance to capture the attention of someone who may be a much more casual theatergoer. They’re people who probably aren’t going to follow Peter Marks on Twitter.

    So I think there’s room for both longer and very short-form criticism and I don’t think one cancels out the need for the other.

    • Howard Sherman

      There’s no question that attempts to concentrate reviews are more prevalent in big cities. But as the legitimacy (in the eyes of consumers) for social media continues to increase, arts groups might hope to enforce embargoes for online reviews as well.  It’s interesting: our constitution made provisions for a citizen’s militia, but I don’t think the founders conceived of a citizen’s press when they advocated for it’s freedom.

      As for the narrowcasting issue, I agree completely. Right now, only The Huffington Post or Ashton Kutcher achieve true critical mass with their communications, but right now social media is at a stage to television in the late 40s. Who knows how it will grow, consolidate, or evolve for the future. Indeed, that’s what’s so difficult for p.r. and marketing folks — the platforms keep emerging and shifting, but when to adopt or abandon is exceptionally difficult. After all, have you decided whether to stay with Facebook or shift your attention to Google+ ?

  • Cynthia Fuhrman

    This discussion is so valuable, because not only our publicists dealing with the media on this, but most of us are also dealing with the artistic leaders who we serve, many of whom struggle with the realities of social media and the lack of control (or perceived control) over information dissemination.

    One interesting episode we had in Portland, Oregon, was the theater critic for the alternative weekly arriving at our theater for opening night, and tweeting, in advance of the show, a message basically stating she was not looking forward to the production and would rather be elsewhere. A youthful and still inexperienced critic/writer, but very much of her generation — arguments about the violation of journalistic integrity that this may have represented won’t really hold water in this case. But just one more instance of something I certainly hadn’t encountered before.

    • Howard Sherman

      Everyone is still figuring out how social media fits in the journalism world; it’s hardly unique to arts coverage. Unfortunately, decisions may be getting made by people who are the least familiar with how these new forms of media (and no one should be fooled, social media is media) and therefore least understanding of how they may (or may not) work for their staff and their audiences.

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