Melodrama at Met

Playbill has edge over Stagebill in turf war

If they’re looking for a Broadway drama filled with passion and betrayal, theatergoers need look no further than their program.

On March 1, the 115-year-old family-owned program publisher Playbill wrested the Metropolitan Opera away from its rival Stagebill. The surprising move was just the latest in an ongoing and increasingly hostile turf war between the two program publishers. With Stagebill clients Lincoln Center, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic all targeted by Playbill, the war shows no sign of letting up.

“Stagebill came after us a few years ago,” Playbill prexy and publisher Phil Birsh said. “This is a competitive business, and we intend to compete.”

The war begins

All this hostility started four years ago, when upstart Stagebill made in-roads into Playbill’s long-exclusive Gotham theater market: Stagebill usurped the Public Theater from Playbill in 1995, immensely angering Birsh. Salt was added to the wound when Stagebill landed Disney’s “The Lion King” on Broadway in May 1998 when the New Amsterdam reopened.

“Us winning ‘The Lion King’ was a tremendous blow to Playbill,” said Shira Kalish, publisher of Stagebill. “They have been aggressively going after our theaters, including the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., ever since.”

In nabbing the Met account, Playbill is hitting Stagebill where it hurts: In order to win over the opera house and clients like it, Playbill is creating a fine arts publishing department to publish venue-specific editorial content. Previously, Playbill had identical editorial content for all programs, leaving Stagebill as the only provider of custom-made programs.

Playbill’s Birsh said it is too early to call the Met pickup accretive, but believes it is “strategic.”

Achilles heel

He’s hoping that the loss of the Met will substantially weaken Stagebill’s footing with advertisers. Stagebill sells its New York program advertising as a whole, and because many advertisers covet the high-income clientele that regularly attends the opera, Playbill is hoping that the Remy Martins and Godiva Chocolatiers of the world will seek upscale eyeballs with them now.

“The Met has been part of our New York service, but a small part,” said Kalish. “If you look at our book, the number of ad pages is extremely healthy.”

Citing examples, Kalish promised, “We will continue to service ‘The Lion King,’ Carnegie Hall and the rest of Lincoln Center.”

But there’s a possibility Stagebill’s Lincoln Center base may be shrinking.

An insider at the New York Philharmonic confirmed that the org is negotiating to extricate itself from its relationship with Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall and its contract with Stagebill, thereby freeing the Philharmonic to sign with Playbill.

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