November 25, 2008

Programming Board Faces Financial Strain

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Last October, when the Cornell University Programming Board brought Steven Colbert to Cornell, his entrance was anything but subtle. First he roused thousands of students at 9 a.m. to buy tickets online. Then he sold 3,000 tickets in 15 minutes, selling out his scheduled performance in record time. To top it off, he performed an additional show to quell the desire of eager Cornell audience members. Attracting a crowd of about 10,000 over 2007’s First Year Family Weekend, CUPB, to say the least, started the year with a bang.
But 12 months later, the programming board, a student organization responsible for major lectures and entertainment events, is in anything but high spirits. After producing two under-sold big-budget productions in Barton Hall — Howie Mandel sold 1,633 tickets and Bill Maher ’78 sold 2,450 out of 5,000 available seats — CUPB is left to face a tight budget and tough questions.
“In terms of our losses, we don’t have a definite figure yet,” said CUPB President Tara Tavernia ’09. “We did, however, sell fewer tickets than anticipated. We’re not sure how much money we’re out because we’re still calculating our costs from the shows.”
Whether people are watching their dollars in lieu of the current financial crisis, or this year’s slate of performers was out-of-sync with Cornell students’ tastes in entertainment, no explanation for the profit losses is certain.
[img_assist|nid=33872|title=CUPB Shows|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]“The CUPB may or may not put on shows next semester. At this point, it would be premature to say whether or not it will. Possibilities being discussed, such as working with other groups and holding shows at the State Theater, would not rule it out anyway,” said Joe Scaffido, the faculty advisor for CUPB.
“It doesn’t look like they’re going to put on the same number of events that they normally do,” said S.A. President Ryan Lavin ’09. “They’re going to get creative in their efforts.”
Founded in 1979, CUPB has had an unparalleled role in bringing entertainment and enjoyment to campus life. “Ithaca isn’t in a huge city, and the job of the CUPB is to bring performers and lecturers to our University. We have a saying ‘we bring the world to Cornell,’” said Tavernia.
The board’s budget is a combination of funds from the Student Assembly, which allocates $7.50 per undergraduate student, and Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, which allocates $4.00 per graduate and professional student, according to Lavin. Scaffido estimated that this funding amounted to approximately $110,000 for the 2008-2010 budget, an amount that is determined every two years based on an appeal made by CUPB to the S.A.
Scaffido emphasized that the CUPB is not out to make a profit, but rather to break even. Money from ticket sales, he explained, goes toward production costs, which pay for security, construction, custodial services, guest hospitality, promotion and publicity.
This past semester, CUPB set sales projections based on estimated costs. For Maher’s September performance, Scaffido said, CUPB set ticket prices assuming they would sell 3,300 tickets and expecting to exceed this projection. CUBP overshot their goal by 850 seats.
“Not in 1,000 years would I have thought that Bill Maher wouldn’t sell 3,000 tickets,” he said. “The State Theater was even asking if they could host a second show because they thought it would sell out.”
Ticket sales dropped even lower than the projected goals in October for Mandel’s performance. CUPB sold a mere 1,633 seats to a show they had expected would draw 4,000 guests, overestimating sales by over 2,300 seats.
This was the first year CUPB planned for both shows to be held in Barton Hall, a decision, according to Scaffido, which was primarily due to scheduling conflicts. “We pick the dates we can get,” he said. “Barton happened to be open.”
Bailey Hall, which has lower production costs and a seating capacity of 1,326, was “pretty booked up” according to Scaffido, and Statler Auditorium was deemed “too small.”
According to the CUPB, specific details regarding how much of their budget was spent are unclear because many of those employed for the two shows are paid on the hour and have yet to be billed. However, according to Lavin, the S.A. was notified in recent weeks about the CUPB’s financial strains.
“After being briefed with estimates and a very general update, [Vice President for Finance] Greg Mezey ’09 and I have requested a formal, most up-to-date budget from CUPB that shows all of their expenses and revenues at this point in the year,” Lavin stated in an e-mail.
Many place the blame for lagging ticket sales on the economic downturn. Scaffido cited Mandel’s manager, who had acknowledged that the entertainment industry would be hit hard by the worsening economy.
“It’s difficult to make a solid conclusion on how the economic crisis has affected the organization given that we’ve only had two events since the economy has turned,” Tavernia said.
Both Tavernia and Scaffido said they would expect the CUPB to request increased funding from the S.A. and the GPSA, despite the fact that funding remained unchanged from the 2006-2008 budget to the 2008-2010 budget.