Is this the Future of Arts Broadcasting? I Don’t Think So.


A few months ago on my walk home I took this picture of a new PBS TV studio under construction as part of the renovation of the Juilliard School. It seems to borrow a page from some of the morning TV shows and sports broadcasts that have street-level studios dotted around the city.

Something bothered me about this, and it took until last month for it to really sink in. I was at a concert at Tanglewood, where the Boston Symphony has installed high definition TV screens in the back part of the 6,000 seat outdoor Shed where it performs. In the past, those seats were so far away that you could barely see the stage. Now, with these large and clear screens, the experience is entirely different. You hear the music live but can watch close-ups of the musicians as if you’re at home. The direction is terrific, and it’s done in a completely professional away. I thought it would be somehow a violation of some well-worn concert-going experience, but rather it was a completely new and enjoyable way to hear a concert.

But, I digress. The real point is that if the Boston Symphony has already invested in video cameras, directors, and staff to make these in-venue broadcasts possible, it’s not a stretch to imagine that they will eventually stream these live online. Let’s for a moment set aside all the obvious union issues that have to be surmounted. I think in time the BSO and others will recognize the same thing that major sports teams understand; that when you broadcast, you don’t cannibalize your audiences — you entice them to come to see the live event. (That’s certainly what the live Met Opera radio broadcasts did for decades.)

But again, I digress. The overarching point is that the technology for any individual to broadcast a live video stream from his or her living room PC is about to be here. And if they can do it, that means that virtually every arts organization is a potential broadcaster. The BSO might just do it, and I'll bet any number of other orchestras with enlightened unions and leadership will too. And the Berlin Philharmonic is doing it right now.

It’s even easier in other genres: There's tons of non-union theater, and dance as well. And just imagine the potential for broadcasting student performances. My own alma mater, Oberlin Conservatory, tells me they are planning to broadcast every student recital and orchestra concert. And doesn't this sort of put high school musicals in a whole new light? If you think grandparents like getting pictures of their grandkids in e-mail, just imagine their delight in watching a live stream of Bye Bye Birdie from Baton Rouge High.

So, is that photo above the future of cultural broadcasting? I don’t think so. That flashy new studio still represents the old model, the narrow pipeline where PBS selects which events the masses get to see. The real future lies in the hands of individual arts organizations, who will find that creating their own broadcasts will be a new and powerful way to expand their audience and motivate folks to attend their live events.

Stay tuned!

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One response to “Is this the Future of Arts Broadcasting? I Don’t Think So.

  1. Gene, just got linked to this old entry from a Patron newsletter. I think it bears mentioning that Oberlin has in fact already experimented with this technology. In January 2009, we offered a free live webstream of the premiere of Harvey Pekar and Dan Plonsey’s opera “Leave Me Alone!” A lot of the thorny rights issued were helped by the fact that we were working with the authors directly and with student and other non-union musicians, but I think that the industry blocks projects like this at their own peril. For our part, we had a full house as well as a number of online viewers from around the world. The webcast made this a truly international event, and the opera clearly interested a wide cross-section of people. Communications stretched from fliers in local comic stores to features on international comics websites, from Down Beat to a national NPR story. The webcast certainly opened up opportunities for us to market the project to a much larger audience.

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