How Do You Take Your Program, Digital Or Printed?

Last month, Washington Post Classical Music Critic Michael Andor Brodeur wrote a piece about why people like himself are unhappy with classical music organizations ditching printed programs. Most places started shifting to digital programs during Covid to cut down on opportunities to transmit the virus.

While we weren’t primarily a classical music venue, my team and I decided to go the digital route as Covid restrictions wound down for the purposes of saving money and cutting down on paper waste. For us that meant putting the program content up on lobby screens and providing QR for people to scan.

As Brodeur points out, the QR code option can be problematic because many people aren’t really adept at accessing and reading content on their phone despite the fact that it seems like everyone around us is always reading stuff on their phones. We would have a handful of large format printed programs on hand for ADA purposes and really annoyed patrons, but for the most part it worked.

For us the shift represented a modest budgetary savings and a reduction in paper waste, but for much larger organizations the decision can have a considerable impact. For the Bethesda, Maryland based National Philharmonic, it meant a savings of about $20,000. However, for the Kennedy Center which said they made the shift based on trash rather than monetary savings, there is a much greater impact.

The 1.5 million programs the center printed — for every event in its main spaces, regardless of genre — amounted to 250 tons of paper per season at an annual cost of nearly $400,000, according to Andrews. This doesn’t count the additional paper waste created for inserts, which primarily address corrections or updates, though are sometimes geared toward fundraising. (Those 1.2 million inserts could add an additional $200,000 to seasonal costs, Andrews says.) Not to mention the programs produced by renters of Kennedy Center spaces.

The change to digital has allowed them to bring program operations in-house rather than sending content off to Playbill. (I would imagine this is going to impact Playbill severely if others follow suit.) In addition to likely reducing the 60-70 day lead time required by having a 3rd party print their materials, this decision has brought other benefits to Kennedy Center:

Since transitioning to digital, the arts center has shifted program operations in-house, using its own stable of writers to produce essays, its own designers and its own proprietary platform to develop programs with a consistent identity across the board. This also allows programs to be scaled for the events they detail. (A one-size-fits-all program approach for both text-heavy events like operas and relatively straightforward rock or jazz performances was another source of waste.)

“It’s an evolution,” Andrews says. “It’s somewhat entrepreneurial, but at the core we’re using technology to streamline the process and reduce the total amount of paper consumption — because we are the Kennedy Center and these are big numbers.”

Many arts and cultural organizations aren’t as large an operation as the Kennedy Center so the same stable of writers who created content for the print program are going to be creating content for the digital version. Though the digital format provides a little more freedom to present information in different dimensions, orientations, and timing/ordering than print.

It may not turn out to be an issue, but one factor I haven’t come up against yet or seen anyone else address is sponsor and advertiser receptiveness to the digital format. With the print format there was always dickering about placement of logos and sponsorship content – inside cover, back cover, center break, opposite title page, etc., Despite the jockeying that went on, those placements may ultimately not be as important to individuals and organizations as they seemed to be. But I wonder if the loss of some of those options may reduce the perceived value and end up reducing sponsorship and advertising revenue.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


1 thought on “How Do You Take Your Program, Digital Or Printed?”

  1. One of the theater companies I subscribe to has gone to digital playbills this year. I see this as mainly a cost-cutting measure, and a feeling by the management that no one cares much about the playbills anyway (which may even be true).

    I hope that they return to paper—I’ve always read the playbill while waiting for the play to start or during intermission, and I keep one copy of they playbill as a souvenir. I’m not going to read the playbill on my phone, and probably won’t look at it on my laptop (neither before nor after seeing the show). Going to digital playbills is essentially equivalent to doing away with them entirely.

    The theater audience (at least around here) are generally older people who are not that fond of staring at their phones.


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