2010 Theatre v Social Media

Well that’s another theatrical year done and dusted – 149 shows seen in 41 different venues during 2010. Shows ranging from classics to new work in progress, venues ranging from the Albert Hall and the open air through to a cold war aircraft hanger.

2010 has been an interesting year theatrically. While the spectre of arts cuts loomed over the industry and financial pressures tightened audience spending, new technology continued to change the way venues interact with the public.

Research shows that online bookings now account for nearly 50% of box office sales but for many venues a website with online booking is their only foray into using IT to engage with potential and existing customers. Some venues have embraced this new technology, e-newsletters, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and a wealth of other innovative uses of IT designed to raise the profile of their venue. For these venues the days of a twice yearly season brochure in the post are long gone. Others have dabbled less successfully.

Perhaps in these financially strained times for the arts electronic channels are seen as a more cost effective PR tool – the cost of sending a tweet compare with the cost of a second class stamp makes a real difference on the end of year balance sheet.

While the Arts Council funding was not quite as bad as everyone feared, local council funding to the arts is still uncertain with more competition needed for a much reduced funding pot.

While the major companies have the expertise and resources to fight for this new funding pot, smaller companies may struggle in this ever increasing competitive market. Perhaps the funding case wasn’t helped by revelations of organisations such as the Royal Opera House paying six figure salaries for some of its management team.

The Royal Opera House also found itself at the centre of a debate on the rise of social media within the theatre community. The Royal Opera House seemed to be caught unprepared for social media in a well publicised, and PR damaging, dispute with Opera Blogger Intermezzo. A very public U-turn and apology later caused the ROH to review their social media policy but by that time the damage was done.

What the case did demonstrate to not just the ROH but venues across the country was the need for a clear Social Media policy. Social Media is a two way communication channel but some venues still see it as purely an advertising medium.

When your online box office system shows live seating plans is it wise to tweet that your show is ‘Sold Out’ when you have a third of your seats unsold and on view? The instant nature of this form of communication means that such PR Spin is soon seen through and diminishes any brand trust your venue may have.

The very fact that opinion, both positive and negative can now be broadcast worldwide at the push of the button requires a much more responsive approach to PR. In this information age, it now takes little for the reputation of an organisation to be tarnished by a spur of the moment email of tweet.

The relationship between venues and bloggers is an interesting one and one that is still developing; at the moment with a few notable exceptions it’s an area that many venues are one step behind on. While until recently reviewing was the preserve of print media, the growth of social media has seen an explosion of critical opinion on the web. Some venues have wisely recognised the potential of this new medium to reach a wide audience and have engaged with the online community. Hampstead Theatre, Seabright Productions, Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, Eastern Angles and National Theatre of Scotland for example have all included the online community in their marketing mix.

2011 will be an interesting year to see how this relationship develops. As arts coverage in traditional media reduces, especially in the regions, the potential of new media to reach a large audience is an opportunity theatres need to recognise rather than fight.

If the relationship between venues and new media is in its infancy then the relationship between new media and traditional media has already progressed along a rockier path. Perhaps 2011 is also an opportunity for ‘traditional’ media and new media to work more closely. We often hear that it’s impossible for the limited critical resource of print media to cover the multitude of opening nights on any given day. Move outside of London and that pressure becomes even more acute, yet on any given day an army of bloggers attend a huge variety of shows across the country and perhaps instead of being seen as rivals could be utilised as a valuable resource.

A quick count online shows for example if you take just four national theatre critics (picked for no reason other than an ease of counting their review output)Michael Billington, Lynn Gardner, Charles Spencer and Michael Coveney have generated a total of 680 reviews during 2010. All an impressive dedication to the arts but if you add in the blogging community it proves to be an even more comprehensive tally. Take an equal number of bloggers, Ian Foster, Gareth James, Webcowgirl and this very blog and between us we’ve reviewed 662 shows.
Given that these bloggers manage this comprehensive tally while also holding down a day job is even more impressive. This breadth of coverage is something that even the most arts friendly publications can only hope to match and is may be an untapped source of bolstering their own arts coverage.

The theatrical blogsphere has received more media attention this year than ever before. From the West End Whingers’ now infamous ‘Paint Never Dries’ epitaph (and their subsequent inclusion on The Times 50 most influential luvvies list), through debate on the Guardian on the rise of regional bloggers and countering an attack on the credibility of ‘unqualified’ bloggers by Guardian contributor Bella Todd, the media is divided over the blogger issue.

There is of course a question of quality and theatrical knowledge and Ms Todd in her Guardian blog ‘can we trust unpaid theatre critics’ casts doubt on a non print journalist’s credentials to review. Her premise seems to equate paid with knowledge. It is an interesting point but does the fact that a review appears on paper rather than online diminish its credibility? In regional media, at least, the fact that a show is reviewed carries no guarantee that the review has been written by a qualified journalist and, even if it is, there is nothing to say that the journalist in question has any theatrical knowledge or experience, with a trip to the theatre sandwiched in between the latest football match, a court hearing and the monthly meeting of the local Chamber of Commerce.

With traditional print media suffering from falling circulation and arts coverage fighting for increasingly limited column space, it is perhaps understandable that in some quarters the media see the internet as a threat. Others such as Lynn Gardner and Mark Shenton have embraced new media and realised its potential for generating debate and discussion. Perhaps it is this power to allow online comment and debate that adds that extra element to online reviews missing from printed versions. It’s comment and debate though that can bite, with even new media savvy critics sometimes finding themselves on the receiving end of hostile comment, as Mark Shenton discovered with an unintentional slight on bloggers (ironically on his own blog).

So it will be interesting to see what 2011 holds for the arts embryonic relationship with the social media. At times there seems to be a battle bubbling just beneath the surface between tweeters, bloggers, venues and traditional media but perhaps 2011 is time to work together and realise that there is space for a variety of media in covering the arts. Instead of the fighting should we not instead be celebrating the fact that more than at any time in the past we now have a strong, diverse and expanding arts coverage?

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