As you know, I’m an engineer and a scientist by trade. I don’t complain about problems, I design solutions to problems. As such, I’ve been thinking a lot about the problems the Bitter Lemons Imperative created. You may have even read some of my thinking to this point. I have also read through all the published commentary and compliants about what BL did, including the discussions on the pro99 Facebook group. I have also seen, in some of the comments, that there are components of the community that really want the ability to get reviewed when they have been ignored by the media (and they saw this as a way to do so).
I would like to come up with a proposed solution that can be presented to Bitter Lemons that has been pre-vetted by the community — that is, all the kinks have been worked out. I know that a solution is possible: in the accounting business, auditors are paid by the companies they audit, yet have independence in their findings. Corporations also have internal quality control organizations. In my professional life, I’ve done a lot of work with the government’s NIAP/CCEVS program, where commercial labs are paid by vendors to evaluate their products, and validators (such as me) review their work to ensure independence and correctness (before that I was an independent government evaluator for a similar program against the prior criteria). What gives the independence is an agreed upon code of conduct, different reporting chains, independent oversight, and often indirection between the source of funding and the reviewed.
Thinking about this issue, I have come up with the following. Please comment on where additional correction is required and this post will be edited, preserving the changes, until we get to a final solution.
The purpose of this proposal is to do the following:
- Provide independent and quality theatrical reviews to organizations that are capable of paying for them.
- Provide independent and quality theatrical reviews to organizations that are not regularly reviewed by mainstream theatrical review organizations.
- Provide operating funds for the review manager, and remuneration for the reviewers.
- All reviewers operating under this review proposal must publicly subscribe to the following ethics rules:
[🎭 Note: This provides a basic level of independence and ethics for the reviewer]
- The reviewer agrees to knowingly accept nothing from a venue being reviewed other than a pair of complementary tickets, an information packet on the show, and possibly parking.
- The reviewer agrees to disclose any past, present, or future relationships with the theatre or any cast or crew members, and must agree to not let those relationships color their assessment of the show reviewed.
- The reviewer agrees that their assessment of the show will be based solely on the story, performance and presentation, and that their assessment will be honest, even if it is negative.
- Organizations capable of paying for reviews will pay $160 to the review manager to obtain a review. The review manager will retain $25 of this fee to cover operating expenses, and the remaining $135 will go into the review funding pool.
[🎭 Note: The amounts have been selected so that those that can afford to pay provide coverage for those unable to pay.]
- For every two paid reviews, the review manager will select, based on an editorial decision of the shows currently running or soon to open that have not received sufficient reviews in the past, a third show to receive a review for no charge.
[🎭 Note: This means that at least one third of the shows reviewed under this proposal get their reviews for free.]
- Shows selected for review must agree, at minimum, to provide two complementary tickets per reviewer unless the reviewer refuses. If a show receiving a review for no charge is unable to provide such tickets, the review manager has the option to select a different show for review.
[🎭 Note: Although I’m not in favor of complementary tickets for reviewers, it appears to be standard industry practice.]
- Any show that is reviewed agrees not to disclose to the reviewer whether they are a paid or an unpaid review. If a reviewer indicates that a show made such a disclosure, any review will not be published.
[🎭 Note: This addresses the other end: a show disclosing to a reviewer that they have paid for the review in order to try to influence the reviewer. If they do so, they’ve wasted their money and get no review.]
- Reviewers are paid $90 for each show reviewed, independent of whether the show paid for a review or received it for no charge. The $90 is based upon an estimated average of 3 hours of writing up the review, 2 hours for the show, and 1 hour transit time at the updated LA minimum wage ($15) for each show.
[🎭 Note: This provides independence of the reviewer from the show. The reviewer has no idea whether the show paid for the review; if they attempt to guess, they have a 1 out of 3 chance of being wrong. [Added 7/2: It also follows the notion of the current idiotic AEA proposal: The reviewer is being paid no more than the actor, who is supposedly getting minimum wage.]]
- Reviewers desiring to review under this proposal must (a) subscribe to the ethics rules, (b) apply to the review manager providing samples of recent reviews, and (c) be accepted by the review manager based on the quality of those samples.
[🎭 Note: This ensures that those reviewers accepted into the pool have some level of quality.]
- Reviews generated under this approach will be included in the Lemonmeter. Every 6 months, a comparison will be made of the reviewer’s ratings of a show versus the Lemonmeter rating for the show. If the reviewer is outside the standard deviation (i.e., the consensus opinion), they may be dropped from the review team at the discretion of the review manager.
[🎭 Note: This protects against a reviewer who does not appear to be reflective of the opinions of the community — it protects against the “I love everything” or the “I hate everything. It provides the closest one could get to independent oversight, as reviewing is subjects and assessment of whether the reviewer followed an objective process is not possible. The oversight, in a sense, is provided by the community coming to the same consensus view.”]
- Ideally, there would be separation between the review manager and the advertising component, so that there is no bias in favor of advertisers in selecting unpaid reviews. This may not be possible for a small website, but ideally the unpaid reviews should be selected based on the theatres regularly receiving insufficient reviews to warrant inclusion on the Lemonmeter (e.g., they are being reviewed, but just not getting enough reviews).
[🎭 Note: The goal here is to prevent bias from the editorial to the selection of the no-pay reviews, addressing the implication that you need to purchase an ad to get a review.]
Let’s address some potential complaints:
- This will be a slippery slope, and all theatres will have to pay. First, this approach includes free reviews based on editorial decisions, so you don’t have to pay to get reviews. Further, there will always be bloggers and others willing to review a show for tickets.
- This will encourage other media to charge for reviews. Other media needs no encouragement. Print media is begging for income. This is an attempt to develop a vetted model that will address that need while still addressing conflict of interest concerns and independence. Hopefully, this might even be a model that those forced to go that direction could adopt.
- How can you charge theatres, and at the same time insist they needn’t pay actors. First and foremost, it is important to remember that no theatre is required to utilize this, and that theatres that don’t use this might still be reviewed for free. Second, I don’t think the position has been that theatres should not pay actors. Rather, the call has been for a tiered system, where creatives (of all types) are paid based upon the theatre’s ability to pay and the budget for the show. If a theatre is budgeting for publicity, this may be part of that budget. If they can’t afford it, they can’t. Nothing is mandatory here; this is just provide an option to those that want to use it. For those that can afford it, budgeting for publicity is part of a production budget, just as is budgeting adequate pay.
- But this looks like a conflict of interest. In an ideal world, there would be no conflicts of interest; reviewers would be paid by journalistic endeavors with no connection between editorial and advertising. But this isn’t an ideal world; there are micro-conflicts everywhere: comp tickets are a conflict, as is any paper or website that accepts advertising at all. Even in such a world there can be independence: look at auditors of major corporations (which are independent), quality control organizations, or the Common Criteria Evaluation and Validation Scheme. They achieve that independence through indirection, strong ethical codes, and oversight. That’s the approach here: have a strong ethical code; get feedback on reviewer quality; and make it so there is uncertainty whether the theatre has paid for the review.
I’m aware that people may not like this idea just because it involves money changing hands. If so, no proposal will be satisfactory unless it fits the model of yore. But our focus should be mission success: getting more people — and younger people and new audiences — to the theatre to see shows, and more reviews help to do that. It should be to improve the viability, the vitality, and the visibility of theatre in Southern California. Let’s work together to come up with a workable approach that satisfies concerns. Let’s be sufficiently open-minded to posit that such an approach is possible if we structure it right.
For those that are willing to make suggestions on how to improve this to address concerns, I’m open to your comments.