By Anya Sacharow
At 113 years old, Playbill, the familiar yellow and black program handed out at Broadway and Off-Broadway theaters, would seem an unlikely candidate to be a hit on the on-line stage.
Perhaps it helps that the magazine’s current owner, the NewYork-based Birsh family, has owned it for a mere 23 years, and that the reins of the operation were handed over within the last few years to Philip Birsh, the 40-year-old publisher and son of former publisher Arthur Birsh.
The younger Birsh credits the elder for not selling out the franchise, commenting, ‘He never bastardized the name. You never saw it on shower curtains at Kresge’s.’ But he also praises his father for understanding that Playbill belonged on the Net. ‘He was a bit–as any chairman should be–suspicious,’ Birsh says. ‘He has come to believe in this medium and is a sturdy backer.’
Thus, starting with the launch of Playbill Online three years ago, Philip Birsh has made Playbill.com into the largest theater site on the Web. To do it, he has employed some of the same strategy that served his father, most notably by saying no to Microsoft. The software-cum-media conglomerate wanted to partner with Playbill Online for New York Sidewalk, the local version of Microsoft’s on-line arts and entertainment guides. Birsh didn’t want to give away any piece of the business, especially since, the site is just getting “in the burgundy.” Instead, last year, he acquired a theater site, Theatre Central, and merged it into the Playbill property.
Playbill Online now posts theater listings in the U.S. and abroad, has daily articles, a theater club with 15,000 members and sells tickets, via a link with Tele-charge. The site registers about 1 million monthly page views and had a startup budget of $1 million. American Express is the title sponsor, and other advertisers include Lexus, AT&T, Lincoln-Mercury and U S West.
However, it looks as though Playbill would be online even without ad revenue, because Birsh believes it is time for theater marketing to move beyond its reliance on billboards, direct mail and word of mouth. ‘Theater and the Web are hand and glove when it comes to marketing and its future,’ he explains. ‘It’s too expensive to reach people the old-fashioned way.’
He adds, ‘There’s got to be better ways to do this going forward.’
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