Tony Awards anger journalists

Press removed from voting pool protest

The decision to revoke the fourth estate’s Tony voting privileges has spurred an outcry from disenfranchised journos and other legiters.

The Tony Award Management Committee announced via email Tuesday evening that members of the so-called First Night Press List — the group of critics, reporters and editors invited to see Broadway shows on or before opening night — would no longer be allowed to vote for the legit world’s highest-profile kudos.

Journalists have been included in the voting pool since the 1963-64 season, the same year members of the League of New York Theaters and Producers — the org that later became the Broadway League, now a co-presenter of the Tonys — were invited to vote.

Move reduces the pool of Tony voters by about 100, or down more than 10%, to approximately 700.

As soon as the email went out, those affected voiced skepticism regarding the stated rationale behind the move, with some viewing the change as an effort by producers, presenters and promoters — who make up the majority of the voting pool — to tighten control of the Tony Awards, widely regarded as a top marketing showcase for Broadway fare.

Other critics took it as a slap in the face that further marginalizes their standing in the Gotham theater community. Irked members of the New York Drama Critics Circle soon launched into a debate regarding a variety of potential responses, including lodging a formal complaint to reopen negotiations, as well as prompting talk of expanding the NYDCC’s annual awards to counter the exclusion from the Tonys.

The Tonys were the only kudos among the major entertainment industry laurels to have included press among voters. There’s no significant critical presence among voting bodies for Grammys, Emmys or Oscars.

The severance letter, sent out by the Tony Awards’ press agency, PMK/HBH, reasoned that the impartiality of journos might be compromised by their direct involvement in the selection of Tony winners. Announcement also noted that the press has plenty of opportunity to make critics’ opinions known via the media outlets that run their theater coverage, as well as through the annual awards roundups in which various groups participate, such as the NYDCC Awards, Drama Desks and Outer Critics Circle Awards.

Decision also repped an effort to pare back an expanding first-night list, which has grown over the years to include a wide array of assignment editors, bloggers, TV bookers and others. Generous estimates peg the actual number of legitimate first-night press at 30-40, leaving 60 or so other media professionals who may or may not cover theater directly and in many cases don’t see a large number of the eligible shows.

“It was not a desire to insult the press in any way but to address the fact that the criteria for inclusion on the first-night list was not coincident with any criteria for why one should or should not be a voter,” said Howard Sherman, exec director of the American Theater Wing, co-presenter of the Tonys.

Rather than risk the controversy of disenfranchising only some of that press list, the management committee decided to revoke the vote for the entire group.

Some in the industry said they viewed the measure as throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Many suspect the prime reason for the cut was producers’ gripes about coughing up 800 pairs of comps per show. But shrinking the number of press voters doesn’t reduce the number of press tickets handed out, since those former voters still have to see and review the shows.

Journalists also noted that while a large number of Tony voters, many of them based out of town, regularly do not see all shows in a Broadway season, members of the press devoted to covering theater are far more likely to catch every eligible offering. Responses also countered the idea that journalists experience a greater conflict of interest than the producers, presenters and promoters who have vested financial and personal interests in the shows on which they work.

“We are, in many respects, the least conflicted of the voting block,” said Adam Feldman, a Time Out New York critic who is also prexy of the NYDCC. “I think it’s terrible for the credibility of the awards and for the sense of community as a whole.”

One significant sore point for the Tony organizers is believed to be the proliferation of theater pundits publishing exhaustive lists of Tony predictions in the run-up to the awards each year. Some feel critics are setting themselves up as oracles and then using their votes to make their predictions come true.

Others feel the outbreak in recent years of bloggers who disregard established professional etiquette by weighing in before a show’s official opening has damaged the reputation of the entire critical community. “Anyone in a position to make editorial comment is now regarded as the enemy,” one pundit said.

Questions were raised about the timing of the announcement, which did not come immediately in the wake of a meeting of the management committee, made up of 14 members from the American Theater Wing and the Broadway League.

Some viewed the release of the information — late on a midsummer day, with PMK blaming email glitches for the fact that many of the affected press didn’t receive the communique until Wednesday morning — as an attempt to get the news out with as little noise as possible.

It’s said, however, that the proposal had been under consideration for some time, with the decision made before the most recent Tony ceremony. Timing was aimed to get the news out before the bow of the first show of the season, “Burn the Floor,” starting previews July 25.

It’s safe to say critics will continue to dig for a more satisfying explanation of what the radical move accomplishes and whom it benefits. Whether or not the aim was directly to antagonize the people who write about the legit industry in a media landscape of shrinking arts coverage, that’s the outcome.

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