Playbill On-Line was the first website dedicated exclusively to the reporting of theatre news and information. A new concept at the time, it was the idea of Playbill publisher Philip S. Birsh.
Birsh provided the impetus. Having succeeded his father, Arthur Birsh, as publisher in 1994, and having only recently computerized Playbill's publishing operations, he set about moving the company into the new information era by placing the entire contents of the Playbills online. He hoped the interviews and Who's Who entries would eventually grow into an "encyclopedia of theatre" available to all. He also conceived of the Playbill Club, to offer discounts and other insider services to members.
The internet itself still being in its infancy, the company's business model was to launch forums on the large online information services, of which there were several at that time, including Compuserve and Prodigy, in addition to America Online. A website was subsequently added, and it eventually grew into the core of the operation.
Contacts with Prodigy led to an introduction to Robert Viagas, who was then an editor and producer at Prodigy. Viagas, who had a journalistic background as writer for Newsday and editor at other Times-Mirror and Gannett newspapers, suggested that the business model be changed to include a news service that would make Playbill On-Line also the daily newspaper of theatre, a concept he had been pitching without success to other entertainment publications.
"I always believed that Broadway news was big, real news and deserved to be on the front page of newspapers daily, just like politics, business and sports," said Viagas, who is now program director of Playbill Broadcast. "If the traditional media didn't want to do the job, someone, perhaps Playbill, should try. Then the paperless web arrived, and it proved ideal for our purpose. Playbill On-Line was born to give the live theatre the daily newspaper it always deserved, and to link previously isolated theatre communities across North America — and around the world — in an electronic town square. At first people didn't think we'd be able to find more than four or five stories a week. Today, 10 years later, Playbill On-Line posts 20 to 30 stories every day." The decision to cover not only Broadway, but Off-Broadway, Off-Off Broadway, regional and international theatre gave staff reporters plenty to write about. Over the years, the site built upon its base of news reporting and comprehensive listings. Andrew Gans' long-standing "Diva Talk" column was eventually joined by columns about theatre-related CD releases, film and television, as well as the events-analyzing "Theatre Week in Review," the celebrity-oriented "Leading Men" and "Playbill on Opening Night" columns, and the pictorial "Photo Call" and "Marquee Value" features.
Today, PBOL boasts more than six million page views each month and is that rare thing in the dot.com world: successful. The site sells tens of thousands of tickets monthly with the Playbill Club numbering 480,000 avid theatregoers.
Because the site is widely read by theatre professionals, it has on occasion acted as a conduit of information between artistic parties.
"One of the exciting aspects of the site is that we sometimes become a part of the process of developing new work," explained Kenneth Jones, an editor at Playbill On-Line. "On a slow news day in fall 1999, I was looking for a story and asked Little by Little composer Brad Ross if he was working on anything new. He told me about a project he was developing with Mark Waldrop, a musical called Mazel and Shlimazel, and he said I could mention it in an item, but there were no production plans. Less than an hour after we posted the story, I got a phone call from the managing director of Northlight Theatre in Skokie, IL. He said that Ross' show sounded like a good piece for his theatre and asked for Brad's contact information. The Playbill On-Line story and the subsequent connection resulted in a Northlight workshop/reading of the show, which was renamed Luck. I hear all the time about how Playbill On-Line coverage of readings and new work prompts agents, theatres and producers to give attention to new plays and musicals. I'm very proud of that."
Playbill On-Line is also a theatre news clearinghouse for general news publications which do not report as regularly on the theatre. Its articles are frequently cited in USA Today, The Daily News and The New York Times, and its editors have been quoted in the Times, New York Post, American Theatre, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, as well as British and European publications.
Additionally, the Job Listings section has helped theatre producers, artistic directors and administrative heads to fill literally hundreds of theatre-related positions.
Ten years have passed quickly, but not without incident. Below is a selective timeline of PBOL's first decade in business.
PLAYBILL ON-LINE TIMELINE
Aug. 18, 1994 First day for Playbill On-Line staff: managing editor Robert Viagas, assistant editor Katia Lundy and listings manager Diana Reese. First item entered into the database is a plot summary of Hamlet, which is still in use.
Nov. 24, 1994: Playbill On-Line's news and listings forum is launched on the Prodigy information service. The Playbill On-Line Club, offering deals on theatre tickets, hotels and restaurants, is a prominent feature.
December 1994 Playbill On-Line hosts first chat on its Prodigy forum guests include Susan Egan from Beauty and the Beast.
Januaury 1995 Playbill acquires the fledgling website Broadwayworldwide and webmaster Andrew McGibbon. The URL is changed to www.playbill.com and Playbill begins posting news on the internet proper.
February 1995 Playbill On-Line forum launched on America Online.
March 1995 Playbill On-Line forum launched on Compuserve.
April 1995 Playbill On-Line forum launched on Apple eWorld.
May 1995 Playbill On-Line begins hiring international correspondents. At its peak in 1998, the company employs theatre writers in London, Tokyo, Toronto, Milan, Paris, Sao Paulo and Mexico City.
January 1996 Andrew Gans' "Diva Talk" column publishes for the first time.
June 2, 1996 Playbill On-Line hosts first-ever live online chat from the Tony Awards via its AOL forum.
1997 Following the folding of Theater Week magazine, columnists Ken Mandelbaum and Peter Filichia switch to Playbill On-Line, where they will continue through 1999.
Feb. 27, 1997: Suite 101 website rates PBOL "the Big Daddy of theatre oriented sites."
April 16, 1998: Robert Simonson, the current editor of Playbill On-Line since 1999, joins the company as a staff writer after stints as staff reporter at Backstage, editor at Stagebill and critic and contributor at Theatre Week.
April 23, 1997: Playbill On-Line staff hosts the first "Countdown to Curtain" event, spending noon to midnight with the cast and crew of the musical Titanic on its opening night, and posting their comments and photos in real time .
May 1, 1997 Playbill acquires the Theatre Central portal, providing a massive directory for the burgeoning number of theatre-related websites.
Sept. 18, 1998: Kenneth Jones, currently an editor, joins the company as a staff writer after four seasons as chief theatre critic at The Detroit News.
Nov. 24, 1998: E! Online calls PBOL "the most comprehensive and authoritative Broadway buzz."
Dec. 25, 1998: The "Photo Call" feature, spotlighting the work of staff photographer Aubrey Rueben, debuts.
Feb. 7, 1999: Steven Suskin's CD review column "On the Record" makes its first appearance.
Feb. 9, 1999: Playbill On-Line's signature Q&A feature, "Brief Encounter," premieres. Kristin Chenoweth is the debut subject.
Feb. 28, 1999: Eric Grode's "Stage to Screen" column, which canvasses the film work of theatre artists, is introduced.
Summer 1999: Entertainment Weekly rates PBOL the best theatre website.
Sept. 10, 1999: Robert Simonson's "Theatre Week in Review," a backward glance and analysis of the week's top stories, is launched. Among the news, Todd Haimes returns to the Roundabout Theatre Company after a short period filling ousted producer Garth Drabinsky's shoes at the beleaguered (and now defunct) Livent. Also, The Scarlet Pimpernel "3.O" (as the third version of this Frank Wildhorn musical was affectionately called) begins performances at the Neil Simon.
Fall 1999: "The oldest established [theatre site] and most frequented by theatre industry insiders."—Show Music.
March 10, 2000: The dot-com bubble bursts when the technology heavy NASDAQ Composite index peaks at 5048.62, more than double its value of just a year before. By 2001, the deflation is near complete. PBOL, however, remains afloat.
April 24, 2000: Playbill On-Line named "Best Theatre Website" by New York magazine.
May 1, 2000: Current staff writer Ernio Hernandez (a one-time Playbill On-Line club member) joins PBOL as a part-time editorial assistant.
August 2001: PBOL staff moves to larger offices in Woodside, Queens, in a suite above the plant where millions of Broadway Playbills are printed.
October 2001: Andrew Ku becomes Playbill On-Line Director, supervising the site.
Jan. 1, 2002: Robert Viagas returns to found Playbill Broadcast and Playbill Books.
Feb. 4, 2002: Playbill On-Line begins broadcasting on Sirius Satellite Radio, with Robert Viagas as director of programming and host.
March 2002: Co-editor David Lefkowitz, a staff writer since the site's early days, leaves PBOL to pursue other projects, including hosting a Long Island radio program. Robert Simonson is now sole editor.
March 2002: Andrew Gans, longtime author of the site's "Diva Talk" column, comes on as a full-time editor. A longtime staffer on the magazine side of Playbill, he continues to edit the Playbill subscription issue.
Sept. 1, 2002: Michael Buckley's "Channeling Theatre" column, examining the work of theatre artists on the small screen, premieres.
Sept. 23, 2002: Ernio Hernandez's "Playbill Archives" column, which uses a new Broadway revival of a show to glance back at the circumstances (and Playbill) surrounding the original production, is first seen.
Dec. 15, 2002: Playbill On-Line's redesigned site, featuring an expanded front page, increased features, speedier access, and more depth of coverage, is launched.
Jan. 1, 2003: Wayman Wong's "Leading Men" column makes its first appearance.
Oct. 22, 2003: Current photo editor/editorial assistant Morgan Allen joins the staff.
March 5, 2004: Harry Haun's "Playbill on Opening Night" column, appearing each time Broadway has a premiere, makes its own entrance.
April 16, 2004: Debut of "Marquee Value," a pictorial feature spotlighting each new Broadway marquee shortly after it gets installed. It proves popular with out-of-towners who don't routinely walk through the theatre district.
July 1, 2004: Hairspray actress Jackie Hoffman, who improvises a new line at every performance, tells the audience at the Neil Simon Theatre, "Will you let me through, ladies? I may not be the star, but there's a very nice article about me this week on Playbill.com."
Aug. 4, 2004: Wall Street Journal rates PBOL one of the top five theatre-related websites, calling it "the leading news resource for Broadway."
Oct. 6, 2004: PlaybillArts.com, a new site covering the opera, ballet and classical music, is launched, with Ben Mattison as editor and Emily Hall as staff writer.
Nov. 24, 2004: PBOL is 10 years old.