With over four billion hits per day and more than 60 hours of footage uploaded every minute, YouTube has changed the way we think of and interact with the web. Since the service’s launch in 2005, we have become publishers of content, giving a platform to all with a webcam — no longer does one need a studio setup or large budget to upload and host video footage in the public domain. Soon after YouTube’s commercialization and acquisition by Google, new services began to emerge developing on the technology created, taking advantage of the fast growing trend. Two short years later, UStream entered the market with something a little different. Speeding up the process of instant gratification again, UStream made it immediate, allowing the live streaming of content to audiences around the world, free of charge. We first saw the wonders of this service in the lead-up to the 2008 Presidential Election when primary reports and debates were streamed immediately online for all to see, building the fascination with this new online technology.
As could have been predicted, it was not before long we saw the arts take hold of this technology. For an industry specializing in audio and visual imagery with a finite number of admissions and high price tag, it was a perfect fit. Since the mid-1970s, established theatres have been attempting to incorporate live broadcasts into their business models. One of the most prominent, Live from Lincoln Center, has brought to our living rooms countless productions every year of their sold-out spectacles, recently Candide, Porgy & Bess, Contact, The Light in the Piazza, and South Pacific. Often aired on PBS, these productions are geared toward grey-hairs, free to watch on local television. Generally speaking, they broadcast Tuesday nights, have a historic biopic during the intermission break, and are hosted by a C-list Dick Van Dyke. Anything fresh or sexy was reserved for movie theatres with a steep admission up-charge (think something like Spike Lee’s Passing Strange, filmed months earlier with heavy post-production). Even these “accessible” movie theatre broadcasts are hard to come by and air sparingly at awkward times, setting them up to fail.
With the advancement of live streaming technologies, we’ll soon see these productions move into this realm. Over the past several years, we’ve seen this on a smaller scale with productions like the Hair revival posting their finale online every night. Streaming (not broadcasting) a full production is the next logical step:
- Live-streaming breaks new ground in the way it merges theater and technology.
- Theatre, in its most basic essence, is a live art form making its live transmission without post production natural.
- Web 2.0 can allow performances to be interactive in a way that a traditional audience setting cannot.
- It combines the excitement of live theater with the community live streamed video fosters.
- Provides an additional source of income, limitless in the number of participants, to an industry with a finite number of admissions nightly.
- Relatively low-cost of startup and almost-guaranteed audience around the world.
- Limits the impact geographic location has on audience members experiencing new pieces, enabling a diverse and limitless experience.
- Transcending quality and personal tailoring of of new technology deeply engages a 21st century audience.
- A new dramatic paradigm that could launch an entirely new dramatic form born of today’s technology.
The biggest forseeable issue standing in the way of this movement is blockades from Actors’ Equity. I foresee the union having extreme concerns with losing control over content, despite their lackluster performance monitoring bootleg traffic. They’ll cite it as distancing from the art and, if passed, push for radical increases in per diem and minimum salaries. I don’t think the move is for all companies, and to be quite honest, never expect to see commercial venues incorporate it into their business strategy, fearing all will substitue the online edition of the performance with sitting in ORCH BB 101. But for fringe producers and festival productions have much to gain by any method to pull in additional profits and build name recognition.
Chris Mellor of The Guardian believes, “Streamed theatre is still an underdeveloped (for some, unknown) tool and most producers are yet to grasp its full potential. But at a time when it can be difficult to fill venues, it represents a new way of helping the box office pull in additional revenue.” Starting small, these organizations should start by streaming rehearsals or press events for all fans to see and share. Arts organizations have little market research on their publics; by engaging them in web 2.0, depth of knowledge can be ascertained quickly, easily, and with little/no cost. By giving this audience what it’s looking for and creating this engagement, smaller arts organizations can use a long-tailed approach, better suited for their niche market. A better engagement strategy means a more involved audience who can grow with the organization — it won’t be long before these patrons pull themselves into seats. The sooner this shift happens, the sooner invested audiences are ensuring financial black for the arts organizations they patron.