April 30--Peter Sagal is, at minimum, amused to be following a theatrical-presentation path cleared by Glenn Beck.
But the host of NPR's "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!" says there are similarities between his show and Beck's act that make both good candidates for the kind of live, closed-circuit movie-theater showing that "Wait Wait" will put on at 7 p.m. Thursday.
"Glenn Beck was the pioneer," Sagal says wryly about the former Fox News Channel star and the burgeoning field of cinecasting, also known as narrowcasting or, in the parlance of the movie theater people, alternative content.
"It's great for niche audiences. That's Beck's thing. Ninety percent of the world thinks Glenn Beck is a lunatic, but 10 percent are willing to pay $50 to listen to everything he says. Public radio is not unlike this," Sagal says.
So instead of mounting the hit comedy news quiz show this week at its normal site, the Chase Bank Auditorium in the Loop, the "Wait Wait" crew will put on the show from a theater at New York University, in front of a live audience there and for viewers at 600-plus movie theaters, including 23 in Illinois, who want to see the video side of the radio show and bask in a little shared public-radio experience.
Steve Martin will be the guest. Tom Bodett, Paula Poundstone and Mo Rocca are the panelists who, guided by Sagal, will attempt to be funny in response to current events. It'll be edited down to a regular weekly radio show, but to give the live presentation extra zip, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings will be on hand, too.
"It's an 11-piece soul-funk band, which is what you think of when you think of 'Wait Wait,'" executive producer Mike Danforth jokes.
The show will be following in others' footsteps. National CineMedia, the advertising and presentation consortium co-owned by the nation's three largest cinema chains (Regal, Cinemark and AMC), put on 24 cinecasts in 2006. Last year, the consortium did 90, and, executive Shelly Maxwell said it hopes to keep expanding, with new kinds of events and perhaps even showing a public-radio event monthly.
"I have small kids," says Maxwell, who runs NCM Fathom Events, the presentation arm of National CineMedia. "I keep thinking that one day they're going to say to me, 'Mom, are you kidding me? They used to just play movies in the movie theaters?'"
And why not? Digital technology's takeover of movie presentation has made the logistics feasible; cinemas with 20 screens have little trouble dedicating one of them to a different event, especially on weeknights; and, despite society's increasing use of personal screens, the lure of the communal event remains strong.
Meanwhile, people in cities without NPR or Broadway shows get a taste of the live experience -- and at $20 or $25 a ticket, rather than $50 or much more.
Fathom has had success with cinecasts from Beck and public-radio , with showings of the original "Star Trek" TV show and "The Wizard of Oz" on its 70th anniversary (2009), and with its ongoing presentation of programming from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, which will start its eighth season of live-to-cinema operas in the fall.
"What's worked for us at Fathom is this very niche product with very rabid fanbases," says Maxwell of the Colorado-based company.
Live sporting events, music and Broadway shows have been successful but are trickier, she says, while two seasons of Los Angeles Philharmonic shows were "difficult" to sell outside of the LA area. (A new effort features the visual arts, including a Munch show June 27.)
But Maxwell remains bullish on such events, as does BY Experience, the Brooklyn company that is a co-presenter of "Wait Wait," along with Fathom, NPR and Chicago's WBEZ-FM.
BY Experience helped pioneer the categoryformat in 2003, when Julie Borchard-Young, one of its principals, was working in marketing for Sony and realized David Bowie was a big enough name to test the concept in promoting his album of that year, "Reality" with a performance of its songs.
About 700 North American theaters now can receive satellite signals, she says, but at that time the process mostly involved satellite trucks outside theaters.
Still, the result was "an audience of over 50,000 people resulting in No. 1 debuts for the album worldwide," Borchard-Young says.
In 2006, BY Experience first started helping to present the Met cinecasts. 2008 saw Chicago Public Radio's "This American Life" try the presentation method for the first time, and it has done two more live-to-cinema events since. "Prairie Home Companion" has also used the method.
The most recent versions of the public-radio shows sold about 70,000 cinema tickets each, including the live cinecast and a replay, Borchard-Young says. "Wait Wait" looks to be on the same track, she adds.
"Wait Wait," which ranks among public radio's most popular shows with 2.3 million listeners in an average quarter-hour, resisted entreaties from NPR to mount such a show for several years, Danforth says, but eventually was won over by the challenge of doing something new and of being able to bring the show to fans who haven't had a chance to see it live, despite a schedule of about a dozen road shows per year.
It's also partly a response to "Wait Wait" not being picked up as a television series in two attempts, from CBS and BBC America.
"NPR has decided, whether wisely or not, that it's just not worth pursuing what is called mass-market media," Sagal says. "The genius here is that the only people who are going to come see it know who we are and really want to come see it."
firstname.lastname@example.org -- Twitter @StevenKJohnson
'Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me -- Live!'
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, repeating May 7
Where: List of participating cinemas, by ZIP code, and tickets available at fathomevents.com
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