Investors raise curtain on Broadway pay-per-view

Domestic distribs eager to broaden PPV audience, Koplovitz sez

NEW YORK — Broadway musicals are about to join championship boxing, wrestling extravaganzas and theatrical movies as marquee attractions to lure TV viewers into shelling out more money for pay-per-view.

A deep-pocketed group of investors, led by Travelers/Citigroup and the four major New York theater owners (Shubert, Nederlander, Jujamcyn and SFX Entertainment), have agreed to fund Broadway Television Network (BTN), whose goal is to produce up to four live feeds of hit musicals a year for one-time-only showings on PPV at the aggressive retail price of $35 a household.

At a news conference in New York, Bruce Brandwen, founder and CEO of BTN, said that only one Broadway musical had previously gone out over pay-per-view: “Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies,” in 1982.

The 13 stage unions had squelched any other PPV coverage of existing Broadway productions over the last 18 years, Brandwen said, because of fears that TV availability of these shows, even for just one showing, would sound a death knell at the box office.

But Brandwen said he has spent the last four years negotiating collective-bargaining agreements with each of the 13 unions, finally convincing them that, far from destroying ticket sales, a PPV satellite version of the show could serve as a promotional vehicle for the nightly performances on Broadway (or in other cities for road productions of the show).

Kay Koplovitz, chairman of BTN and former chairman and CEO of USA Networks, said she’s working on domestic deals with In Demand (formerly Viewer’s Choice), the dominant pay-per-view distributor of movies and events to cable operators, and such satellite PPV distributors as DirecTV and EchoStar. BTN also owns the foreign PPV rights to the musicals it commissions.

The domestic distribs are “eager to broaden the pay-per-view audience beyond male-appeal boxing and wrestling,” Koplovitz explained. Broadway musicals like current hits “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Saturday Night Fever” and “Kiss Me Kate” are bound to attract more women than men to PPV, Koplovitz said.

BTN included stills from these three musicals in its press kit, but Brandwen said he hasn’t concluded any deals with the owners for a PPV version as of yet.

“Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” a musical review built around the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, is the only production under contract to BTN, which plans to schedule the high-definition tape of the production sometime before September. BTN taped the last five performances of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” which closed Saturday.

Brandwen said all other PPV satellite feeds of Broadway musicals will be live, not on tape.

None of the principals would comment on how much money the investors are putting up for BTN. Koplovitz said BTN will make its money not only from the PPV event but from ancillary markets such as videocassettes and DVDs, pay cable, basic cable and TV syndication. BTN is even insisting on Internet rights to the Broadway musicals, she explained, in the event that people start clamoring to call up theatrical productions on their personal computers.

In addition to Koplovitz and Brandwen, BTN’s staff includes Susan Lee, senior VP of marketing; directors Jerry Zaks and Don Roy King; and producer Nick van Hoogstraten.

Other investors include Roy Furman, founder of ING Baring Furman Selz; Bud Williamson, owner of WKBN Broadcast Corp.; and Richard Wolf, owner of the Columbus Dispatch, TV stations WBNS and WTHR and technology company Hi-Vision America.

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