Yahoo!, AmEx log on to B’way

Web sites join to promote theater beyond Gotham

Yahoo!’s reach and American Express’s wallet are trying to take online theater marketing to a new level.

On May 27, the team launched broadway.yahoo.com, which offers one-stop shopping for Broadway show info, video clips, news stories from Playbill.com and links to shows’ ticket-buying sites housed at Telecharge.com and the like.

Site will pop up in Yahoo! searches and will get a link on the main Yahoo! home page.

Nancy Smith, VP, global media and sponsorship marketing for American Express, says that the site is aimed at making Broadway more accessible for everyone. Industry execs hope the site will, more specifically, give Broadway a presence beyond New York.

“This is a great way to communicate with potential ticket buyers before they come to New York and before they’ve made their other entertainment decisions,” says vet producer Jeffrey Seller. “That could be a bonanza.”

AmEx, which funds the site, already has a Broadway presence with its Gold Card Events program, which for many shows gives gold and platinum card members first crack at tickets before they go on sale (“700 Sundays” and “The Producers” have been among the hottest offers), and prime seats during the show’s run.

Now, AmEx will offer benefits to people who buy tix with any AmEx card, and promote these offers via the site. For example, tickets for the upcoming revival of “The Odd Couple” will go on sale June 6 to all AmEx members only (non-AmEx members can’t get them until July 5). For some shows, tickets bought with an AmEx will come with a gift card for $10 or $25, or merchandise, such as a cast recording. In some cases, people who buy tickets with certain more exclusive AmEx cards will get even better benefits, such as meet and greets with Broadway stars.

One Broadway exec who attendedan AmEx presentation on the site notes some concern that the site will offer ticket discounts. The site will attract Broadway neophytes, and producers would prefer to push that crowd toward full-price seats (the many existing discount codes available via email blasts and sites like Playbill.com and Broadwaybox.com are mainly known by seasoned theatergoers, the thinking goes).

A site spokesperson said that the site is not currently offering discounts, but would not rule out the possibility that the site would offer them in the future.

Site launch comes at a time when Broadway’s online presence has been rising exponentially. Telecharge now sells 60% of its tickets online, a figure that has been going up 10 or 15 percentage points each year, says Jennifer Tattenbaum, E-commerce manager at Telecharge.com. Many theater fans now get their info from sites like Playbill.com (almost 500,000 unique visitors a month), Broadway.com (400,000) and the New York Times theater site (over 500,000), and the last two have recently been revamped. Email blasts from these sites and others flood theatergoers’ inboxes. The Web has also sped up market forces, making it easier to find not only discounted tickets but sites where brokers scalp hot seats for well over face value, or secondary marketplaces like eBay and StubHub, where anyone can sell off tickets they purchased at the B.O.

Says Nancy Coyne of the Broadway ad agency Serino Coyne, “We are forever fielding complaints with people who have gone on Gershwin-Theater.com, which has nothing to do with the Gershwin Theater,” at least officially — it does offer premium tickets for the venue’s tenant, “Wicked.”

“With every technology comes new scams,” says Mike Rafael, director of Ticket Central, a ticket service that sells seats for Off Broadway companies. “It’s in a lot of ways the wild, wild West.”

The Yahoo! site seems to be playing sheriff, directing theatergoers to a more official outlet.

Site could hurt outlets such as Broadway.com, which offers theater news and video clips but is also a ticket broker with its own phone and Web ticket-buying service, charging a surcharge of up to 20% on tix while selling $58 million worth in 2004.

“We are working on ways to protect our interests in the business,” says Broadway.com director of marketing Janette Roush. To that end, Roush says, Broadway.com is partnering with another prominent, non-Broadway Web site that she would not name (it’s not a search engine), for a venture to begin in June.

Playbill.com, which does not sell tickets, seems to be taking the “if you can’t beat ’em join ’em” strategy by giving the Yahoo! site listings info and about five news stories a day.

“We’re not worried about any other site on the Internet,” says Playbill prexy and publisher Philip Birsh. “You don’t ever have one source of info on a topic, you have several sites. What’s good for Broadway is good for Playbill.”

With almost all current Broadway shows signed on, AmEx and Yahoo! have lined up enough partners to make the site almost critic-proof.

Says Smith, “The idea is to make sure everybody has a vested interest, everybody contributes something.”