2014 to bring new challenges to our arts and entertainment community
by Larry Murray
(Part of a series about streaming entertainment vs. commercial cable and satellite)
Change is coming in the way we watch our entertainment, both live and via the various devices we employ, from television flat screens and tiny Smart Phone devices to jumping in the car to attend a live concert or performance.
Change happens. Take the place that entertainment has in society. In the 18th century, operas were like modern sporting events: Audiences listened, talked, and ate. Mini-operas or organ concertos were performed at intermission like halftime shows. Since then, theater performances have shrunk from five acts (19th century) to three (20th century) to the current trend of an intense, intermission-free 90 minutes that lends itself to more flexible start times. This is not to deny that three hour shows, once in a while, still rule the rialto. The Iceman Cometh and Angels in America can clock in at 3-5 hours, and you sometimes can’t print enough tickets to satisfy the demand.
Curtain times are no longer certain either, with fewer companies using the once mandatory 8:00 pm starting time for evening shows and 2:00 for matinees.Restaurant owners like it to be later for maximum business, but increasingly aging audiences and working people want to get home by a decent hour. We think the trend to shorter plays and earlier ending times will continue.
Past as prologue
Consumers have choice when it comes to entertainment, and while attendance at all the local theatre companies has grown again in 2013, there are seismic shifts in the electronic end of things as cable companies continue to think they are invulnerable. They aren’t. They’re about to see the trickle of cord cutters become a torrent. For one thing, plans are afoot for a new form of cable, digital that you can stream from your computer.
Surprisingly, more and more tv watchers are venturing to live theatre and music, both for its immersive and commercial free experience and its locally grown status.
What tv executives and online entrepreneurs call “content” is mostly intellectual spam, the same old hackneyed crap recycled with different characters and costumes. People are continuing to discover that you have to go to a real live theatre or watch an independent film for some real brain food. I am old enough to have grown up with just radio and live performances, back when they were mourning the passing of vaudeville and debating whether that flickering tube would put radio dramas out of business.
It did. Even with the innovation of Cinemascope and the short lived three-projector Cinerama, the advent of television eventually emptied thousands of movie theatres. Most were demolished to become parking lots or worse. Some of them were originally built for vaudeville and have a second life as the main stages of Barrington Stage Company, Berkshire Theatre Group (Colonial) and the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center.
At one point in my life, I was the youngest person in a theatre. Today I am often the oldest, at least at those non-traditonal events that appeal to young folks. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Since my first paid job in the entertainment industry was with Warner Brothers during the period they began producing their first television programs, I have always kept an eye on this player as the most significant talisman for that industry. They were way ahead of everyone else in promoting films on DVD at popular price points and have been busy experimenting with streaming.
Some industry execs see the future, others still in the past
While cable and satellite companies continue to raise their prices to keep their profit margins fat and healthy, Nexflix continues to innovate and in a move announced today, lower prices. That’s right. Netflix is trying out new prices for its online video service, including a tier that costs customers $6.99 a month — $1 less than its standard version — to play content on just one screen at a time. It is also offering some customers the ability to play three different programs on three screens for $9.99. All without commercials. Compare that to your current cable or satellite bill and you will understand why Netflix stock is in high demand.
Ron Sanders, Warner Home Entertainment division President is quoted in an insider newsletter as saying that streaming movies should be up 50% this year which means that it will surpass the biliion dollar mark. The growth of smart tv’s and set-top devices from Roku and Apple make it inevitable. Echoing the huge growth potential of this element of the entertainment industry, Craig Kornblau, president of Universal Studio’s Home Entertainment division (where I once toiled in the booking office) says their growth of streaming is double digits quarter over quarter.
Yet that company mistakenly wants to get into bed with other big guys like Comcast and Time Warner which to me is wrong-headed. Sure, given the hubris that comes with corporate studio culture, it appears to be the easy way to quick growth, but digital innovators who have not yet appeared will be the leaders. In the end the traditional salary-heavy cable companies are going to be cast aside as this decade unfolds to be replaced by lean and efficient online services. The cable companies are enjoying the geese that lay the golden eggs, but they should take a gander at their customers now and then. The paying public thinks as little of the cable companies as they do of congress and early signs of an exodus have appeared this year. For the first time in decades cable showed little or no growth, and for some players there was the first decline in subscribers. This is part of long simmering consumer frustration, which combined with a pent-up desire to flee will eventually overtake the big players. It will begin to manifest itself in 2014 and in a few years the entertainment media will be all over itself saying it came as a surprise.
Bad news for cord cutters: ABC starts restricting access to full TV show episodes
For those of us who have cut the cord, things are getting warlike at the big networks. They don’t like us to see their stuff for free, even if it is loaded with commercials. GIGAOM reports that fans of Modern Family, Scandal, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Revenge are out of luck viewing the previous night’s episode online at their network site without the right cable account credentials. For example, if you are serviced by Time Warner, Direct TV or DIsh you are shit out of luck. It’s Hulu or Amazon for a fee, or wait a long time to see the latest program. Starting on January 6, ABC will require viewers to sign in with other cable account information if they want to watch new episodes of the network’s shows online the day after they air on TV. Can you live without the networks? Good question.
But in the end, even if you pay a cable bill you should have access. It seems in their greed, the networks are creating a mess with different policies for different cable and satellite providers, and this will in the end just backfire. More on this here.
Musicals are big budget blockbusters on stage, not so much on screen
A similar change is coming in Hollowood where the blockbuster mentality has shown itself in decline with a year full of big budget disasters. The Lone Ranger, R.I.P.D. and White House Down has been followed by 47 Ronin as the stuff of failed careers and huge write-offs. Thankfully, Gravity along with an ever growing number of small and mid budget films are helping the industry head to another record breaking year despite the big budget losses. Factor in higher ticket prices in what looks like a year with flat attendance and the spin machines will ballyhoo another “record breaking” year. As with our own resident arts organizations, just don’t examine the numbers too closely, there’s a lot of information missing in that pile of statistics.
Blockbuster musicals like On the Town from Barrington Stage and Bridges of Madison County from Williamstown Theatre Festival set the local theatre box offices on fire. Film night at Tanglewood is another very hot ticket, as is any performance by James Taylor. People really enjoy great performers and lush production values, especially when they can experience it up close and personal. Though this next development in home entertainment may as come as close to rivaling the live experience as anything to date.
4K Ultra High Definition is coming
In the next few days you will begin to read about a new super high definition format called 4K for the home, and whose specs are almost identical to that of a multiplex screen. At the January Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas – which I attended for the decade of the DVD – flat screens as big as 110″ will be demonstrated and sold, with units up to 150″ in the works. The huge size begins to make it possible to truly duplicate the movie theatre experience in the home (a large one, one presumes). Actors will appear life sized in front of you and immerse you in a way never possible before.
Consider how you will be able to control the environment, the volume, even your proximity to others. Unlike the communal multiplex experience there will be no cell phone rings, blabbing neighbors or other distractions, and freshly made popcorn won’t cost $5.00. This Ultra HD offers up to 4096 x 2160 pixels. 4K is four times the high definition resolution of 1080p (1920×1080 pixels). The cable companies are not prepared for it and the whole country would probably have to be rewired to make it available in your home. So I suspect cable will become the VHS of the luddites, while computer literate folks will be actually streaming it. The excess of commercials that infests cable programming will become a final nail in the coffin, along with the ever rising bills for “200 channels with noting on any of them,” as my pals like to say. The one exception is sports fans who seem immune to high prices and commercial overload as long as they get to watch a game.
What readers want to read about
In the year just winding up, it turns out that at Berkshire on Stage the previews of the shows we eventually review are very popular, and can often live on long after they are written. Our simple 2010 piece on The Crucible turned out to be the starting point for more than one class as students submitted their responses. Our review lives on as well. But most popular are the summer schedules and overviews which we spend a lot of time on, and go into great detail about what to expect. Combined, the Berkshire area theatres attracted more ticket buyers than even Tanglewood, and taken as a whole are as vital to our creative tourism economy as the makers of popular drama, comedy and musicals.
In the way that the local foods movement has re-introduced the idea of nutrient rich locally grown foods, our local theatre companies continue to thrive because they provide the same sort of intellectually rich food for thought. The many creative folks who have settled in the Berkshires during the past decade or two are now making their presence felt through increasing local ticket sales at places like Barrington Stage Company which seems to have found the perfect formula for tapping into the areas intellectual curiosity.
The printed word and readers
While readers of Berkshire on Stage come primarily from the Berkshire region, there are more than 178 countries represented by our stats, and a sizable migration from the New York City and Boston areas during the summer as people plan their vacations. That our previews of the BSO at Tanglewood (#1 and 2) and an advance SPAC article (#4) were the most read posts shows that we are filling a need that is often not fulfilled elsewhere.
Among the most exotic stories we wrote in 2014 was that about the Geisha of the Golden Age which had both a visually gorgeous preview and and a historically detailed review by Gail M. Burns. Writer Roseann Cane covered Stockholm at Stageworks in Hudson, possibly the most unusual play of the year, and one of our most read reviews.
With 645 new posts in 2014, most about the Berkshires and environs, Berkshire On Stage has a wealth of local news, previews and reviews not found anywhere else. With high quality photos and embedded videos, we like to think it is among the most visually interesting as well. That our reviews very often (though not always) provide some upbeat “pull-out snippets” for local entertainment ads is recognition that Berkshire area artists value our coverage. This is the synergy we treasure, because we feel an obligation to help connect our areas producers of art and entertainment with new audiences so they continue to grow.
The Coming Year
With screenings and streamings of great performances like Britain’s National Theatre becoming increasingly common in movie theatres one wonders which Berkshire company will break the ice and figure out how to reach a larger audience. All four major companies – Shakespeare & Company, Berkshire Theatre Group, Williamstown Theatre Festival and Barrington Stage have staged important works that deserve a wider audience.
One can only guess what the future holds for the small and mid-sized companies who are the backbone of American creativity. The Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday telecasts attract a million people worldwide, yet at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, New York,the opera company there (HHOT) filled their space with The Barber of Seville. Our review of that opera was the most read review of the year. Talk about pent-up demand.And our most read opera preview was of the Met’s Tosca which was in essence a video preview with three performance clips included, served up from our own video site.
In terms of coverage, I see Berkshire on Stage becoming ever more visual. The social media continue to evolve, and are like the hottest dance club in a big city, never the same two years in a row. The latest trend is towards photo and video sharing sites like Pinterest, Instagram, Vimeo and the like. You are already there, and so are we. Our tweets @BerkshireStages are followed by an amazing number of local reporters who want to keep up with local arts and cultural news. The big daddy of course is Facebook, though the younger crowd is avoiding it since parents and grandparents started joining the party there. I have a personal page on Facebook as well as two Berkshire on Stage pages, the BOS group where you have to ask to join and comment, and the BOS fan page in which all you need to do is click “like.”. Facebook’s growth has been among seniors and those with less than $50,000 a year in income. Here are the stats on Social media market penetration:
Facebook – 71%
Linkedin – 22%
Pinterest – 21%
In keeping with the increasing visual literacy of its audiences, live performances will be increasingly challenged to incorporate increasingly complex elements into their offerings. We see theatre,music and dance growing in some new ways as they meet the intellectual, emotional and visual expectations of ever more sophisticated audiences.