So what do they do, these reviewers — apart from showing off, getting freebies, and causing sleepless nights? Does anyone pay any attention to what they say? That is, do people decide which shows to attend based on what the reviewers think? I designed a study of the 1988 Festival Fringe to address this question. The answer turns out to be — very few.
Back in the old days, when harlequins and acrobats would round up the folks. there were no critics to tell you what to think. In the 17th century, most of the ‘critics’ paid two shillings to sit on the stage and voiced their criticism during the performance — the tablets they carried were to write down juicy bits of gossip rather than notes about the show. In modern times criticism — or, more generally. ‘reviewing‘ — has become an integral part of the cultural world: books, movies, art. theatre, comedy, rock music, classical music and the rest of it are grist for documentary. summary, exposition, political theorising and moral philosophising.
The reviewer plays a variety of roles, not least telling potential viewers what they are about to see, should they choose to sample the fare. But the crucial element of the review is often the judgement, an evaluation of the merits ofthe piece. This judgement is encoded in phrases and claims about the goods and bads of the performance. the extent to which it measures up. And it implies — more or less explicitly — a recommendation to the reader: to go or not to go. The reviewer is an opinion-monger and a labeller: ‘I read a review of Batman.’ ‘Oh yeah?‘ ‘It’s apparently a lousy movie.’
I began to wonder, during last year‘s Festival, whether reviews actually affected the size of the audience for a show. No one, to the best of my knowledge, had ever answered this question. With the help of Mhairi Mackenzie-Robinson and Trisha Emblem at the Fringe office I designed a study using all performances which appeared at least twice at last year’s Fringe. Although my analysis has been slowed by the timely interruption of the current melee, I submit these preliminaries for your review and critique:
1. A voiding reviews is more difficult than getting them. The Big Four publications alone — The Scotsman, The List, Festival Times and Review 88— cover 82 per cent of all shows. Most shows are reviewed two or more times. A survey of Fringe groups showed over 90 per cent get reviewed someplace.
2. Shows that get reviewed don ’t ‘automatically’ have larger audiences. Average attendance is slightly lower for shows which are reviewed than for those not reviewed.
3. The ‘average’ review is positive. Although over 25 per cent of reviews are negative, most reviews are somewhat favourable.
4. Shows that get favourable reviews have slightly better attendance than
The List reviewers.
Can a good or bad review make or break a show? Wesley Shrum tackles the question head-on in a List exclusive.
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shows which don 't, but this difference is largely due to other factors. I can explain up to 2/3 ofthe variation in audience size, but little ifany of it is due to the kind of reviews a show receives. More important are the prior reputation of the group, the TV and radio coverage, and the total number of reviews received — regardless ofwhether these are good or bad. After taking into account other factors, I estimated the actual ‘improvement’ that results from a good review in The Scotsman: the difference in average attendance between a mediocre and a very positive review is about six people. This finding is particularly
interesting because, if reviews ever had an effect, it would be at the Fringe, with a large and interested public. an embarrassment ofchoice. and too little time to see everything. But there is simply no evidence which indicates, reviewers have the power to make or break shows.
5. The ‘actual'judgement of reviewers about a .show is only imperfectly reﬂected in the printed review. I compared the opinions of a number of reviewers — expressed informally in interviews — with the evalutions as they appeared in print. Though there is usually a close correspondence, there is a tendency for the printed, ‘public‘ reviews to be
more positive than their ‘private‘ opinions.
This ‘reviewer grace‘ may explain the observed bias toward slightly positive reviews. Put differently. most critics are not axe-wielding trolls who slate shows for their own amusement. but rather benefit-of-the-doubters.
6. One review is not as good as another. Sure. you can find shows which have uniforme positive reviews. Still. by and large. there is a surprising amount ofdisagreement about the merits ofparticular shows. Knowing what oen reviewer thinks won't tell you what another thinks. 7. Some have criticised a perceived bias towards coverage of established groups at the stqwrvenues. The results of this study indeed confirm that performers with prior national reputations have an advantage in terms ofTV and radio mentions as well as the number of reviews received in national papers. Further. audiences appear to avoid the ‘risky‘ shows: those acts with the Fringe First ‘star’ in the programme start out at a disadvantage. a finding which is somewhat disheartening.
To sum up. these results show - for the first time - that reviews have very little effect on attendance. ifindeed they have any effect at all. Both the fear and the exultation which accompany the appearance of reviews are largely misplaced, at least with respect to how many people show up at the door. Performers. directors. and playwrights may value reviews for their own sake. and for their effects on booking agents. but need not dread the reviewer's axe — or buy him drinks. for that matter.
Does all this mean that reviewing is unimportant. that we should imagine. with George Steiner. a culture without critics? Assuredly not. Indeed. these resultsfree critics to ply their trade without the burden ofguilt and self-congratulation which derives from imagined authority.
Reviewers provide people with a set ofjudgements as a starting point for conversation — over morning coffee. at the office and the pub. I suspect that as we continue to learn about the phenomenon, we will find that people are more likely to read reviews for shows they have already seen. Reviews stimulate ‘tertiary discourse' — disagreements and agreements about what was seen and how to view it. veering away from the performance at hand into related realms of life and culture. The critical review is particularly important as a balance to promotional ‘previews' and ‘features‘ which do little but advertise. In an atmosphere of hype and hullaballoo. we can appreciate that people do read the reviewers: they just make up their own minds.
Th e author is Associate Professor of Sociology. Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. Louisiana 70803 . comments may be sent to The List office. Professor Sh rum 's office hours during the Festival are after midnight at the Fringe (.‘lub bar.
The List l8—_ZT4_August 198911