A Modest Proposal to Review — Private to Pre-Vetters Only
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.
Paying for Reviews, Take 2
Time to wade back into the frey. While finishing my salad at lunch, I was reading another take on the “Pay for Review” situation that I stepped into yesterday. For background, read the introduction on my previous post. I want to say upfront that I do not like, do not approve, do not condone, theatres paying for reviews.
That said, there are two arguments in this discussion that may be red herrings: the argument that theatres cannot afford these reviews, and the argument that if this works, everyone will do it. The two are connected, and let me show why they are wrong.
- Theatres cannot afford to pay for reviews. One of the key things that seems to be forgotten is that no one is holding a gun to the head of a theatre company and making them pay for a review. They can always just ignore the Bitter Lemons Imperative and do what they did before: send out press comps and hope that someone comes. Although the option is there, a theatre that uses it end up with egg on its face if it uses it either due to quality of the result, the tainted nature of the result, or what it implies about the show. Furthermore, they may not want a review from Bitter Lemons, seeing the unpredictable quality that comes out and its reputation as a review source. That’s true even for unsolicited reviews: consider the power of an “LA Times” recommendation vs. a recommendation the North Valley Chamber of Commerce Newsletter (or even this blog 🙂 ). However, that’s neither here nor there. If theatre companies don’t have the money, they just don’t have to pay.
- But Everyone Will Want To Charge. Two schools of thought here. One is that, given the nature of journalism, press outlets may finally stop giving free coverage, unless it is real news, to non-advertisers. They’ll cover your theatre if it burns down or someone dies in a rehearsal. A review, especially a good one? That’s advertising. So — independent of what Bitter Lemons has done — papers may try to start charging anyway. So, you say, perhaps Bitter Lemons will start the trend. Papers will then start charging more and more, and theatres just cannot afford it. This brings us back to the previous point. If they don’t have the money, they don’t have to pay and Bitter Lemons will demonstrate that the idea was a failure. The theatres will just shift even more to word of mouth, recognized theatre bloggers for whom sufficient payment is free tickets, social media promotions, and promotion sites such as Goldstar. Human nature being what it is, you can always find people that will review for free.
Again, let me emphasize that I am not supporting theatre companies paying for reviews. I personally feel it is an incredible conflict of interest (whether real or just perceived) that devalues the review, devalues the theatre, and devalues the publication. That, alone, to me is a reason not to do this. But the two arguments above — affordability and slippery slope — are poor arguments.
P.S.: Lastly, you might say this hurts the “pro99” cause. It only does if theatres buy into it (thereby demonstrating they have the hidden cash in the budget). If they ignore it, they will succeed if they invite legitimate independent theatre critics and recognized bloggers with traditional perqs (accommodating those like me who feel free tickets are also a conflict of interest), and double down on the social media and postcards. If you ignore the “imperative” and just plain and simply do good and compelling work, you’ll succeed far better.
P.P.S.: With respect to these points, the larger theatres (major houses with seating above 300 or so) may be able to afford this. There, well, you get what you pay for. They are also the theatres that can pay $$$ for newspaper advertising, which may make the print journalists in mercenary mode more likely to send the critic. They are also the theatres that tend to get reviewed, and they may not pay for it simply because a Bitter Lemons review buys them no additional attendees. Most importantly, their greyhair audience wouldn’t be able to find Bitter Lemons (<granny-voice>”Where do I find that, Sonny? At my grocery store? I asked, and they said all lemons were bitter.” </end-granny-voice>)
Paying for Reviews… The Right Way
In the last few days, there has been a… discussion… over on one of my Facebook groups regarding a decision by Bitter Lemons to allow theatres to pay money to get a critic to review their show. General reaction to the decision has been poor, there have even been a few blogs (one, two, three) railing against the issue. There has even been criticism on Bitter Lemons itself.
Now, when I first heard about it, I thought it might be a good way for theatres that are never reviewed to get known. But the discussion has made me realize that that benefit is offset by too many negatives: it looks like pay for good reviews, theatres would be upset paying for bad reviews. It also takes away money that theatres don’t have, according to our pro99 arguments. In short, it’s a bad idea. [I’ll also note that if it is done, there must be transparency: such paid reviews must be clearly marked and segregated.]
But I’m not an actor. I’m an engineer. I solve problems. These are the problems as I see it:
- Bitter Lemons needs to raise funds to support their work.
- We need to increase the amount of theatre criticism being published.
- Lesser known theatres and theatres off the beaten path with no reputation need an equal chance to be reviewed.
I thought about this a bit, and was musing about how even comp tickets provided to reviewers are a conflict of interest. True independence would be critics buying their own tickets to shows (something I do). This would be just like Consumers Reports buying cars off the lot, not having them be provided by manufactures.
Buying cars off the lot. Like Consumers Reports. Then it hit me…
Perhaps that’s the model we need to move to (and I think someone suggested something like this in the discussion).
Theatres and individuals can pay into a fund managed by Bitter Lemons to get reviews for theatres in general, just like people can donate to the Consumers Union foundation. This fund can then send critics out to theatres that traditionally don’t get a sufficient threshhold of reviews on Bitter Lemons. That may well be the theatre that has donated, but the theatre did not fund that particular review — there’s not a direct causation of the payment to the review like you have now. In fact, it might be in the interest of larger theatres that regularly get reviewed — and have the funds — to contribute to this fund to help the entire Theatre community get visibility. [ This, my friends, meets the three goals: (1) Bitter Lemons can still get its cut for reviews; (2) more theatre reviews are published; and (3) theatres that don’t get reviewed get reviewed. It does away with the negative: the theatre is not directly paying for the review of its show. It also permits the “haves” in the community to help those who have not.
I have suggested this idea to Colin. We shall see what happens.