World Ballet Day and Sustainable Audiences:

Is the Path Forward Staring the Arts Straight in the Face?

By Marc Kirschner

Is the Path Forward Staring the Arts Straight in the Face?This past October 1, 2014, was a big day for the dance field. Around the world, five of the world’s best ballet companies joined together for a full day of behind-the-scenes live streaming on YouTube featuring rehearsals, interviews and company class. On the same day, the Wallace Foundation announced a six-year, $40 million initiative to support building audiences for sustainability. While I wondered if the planners of the two events were each aware of the other, I also found myself staring at the negative space between the two and wondering if anyone else noticed the solution to be found within. Combine these two events with Dance/USA’s recently announced “Call for Questions” for next year’s conference and I figured it would be as good a time as any to posit a few questions that I know are seldom asked (or answered properly) across the arts community.

Will U.S. ballet companies benefit from World Ballet Day?

This question reminds me of a similar question a friend and I argued over not too long ago, which was whether Major League Soccer (MLS) or international leagues such as the English Premier League (EPL) would benefit more from the record U.S. audiences for this summer’s World Cup.

In the case of soccer, MLS appears to have benefitted, but EPL has benefitted more. In fact, U.S. television ratings for the EPL are twice that of MLS, despite the fact that EPL games take place early in the morning.

Taking this a step further, more viewers for EPL matches means more television revenue for EPL teams (and unlike the dance field, no one is wasting energy on archaic conversations about how the only good experience is a live one). This additional revenue for EPL teams means more resources to pay and spend on players, resulting not only in a higher quality product with more appeal to viewers, but also the ability to buy high-profile American stars whose domestic recognition can be used to boost ratings in the U.S. market. In fact, even the U.S. Men’s National Team coach expressed a concern over players plying their trade domestically.

That’s fine, but soccer isn’t ballet. Completely different forces at play, right?

In the case of ballet, the participating companies appear to have benefitted, but the Royal Opera House benefitted more. The ROH generated twice the views and subscriber additions of any of the other companies, despite the difference in time zones.

Larger audiences means more media revenue for the Royal Opera House via increased home video and theatrical sales. This additional revenue provides the ROH with more resources to spend on dancers and collaborators, resulting not only in a higher quality product with more appeal to viewers, but also the ability to hire high-profile international dancers whose reputations can be used to boost attendance in local markets.

Two weeks after the event, San Francisco Ballet’s daily subscriber growth had almost returned to its 180-day level. The Bolshoi’s rate is down from the week of World Ballet Day, but holding on to some gains. The Royal? Its rate is increasing.

Which brings us to the only question that is actually important: Why?

YouTube’s search algorithms have determined that the most viewer-friendly result for the search term “ballet” is the Royal Opera House, and more specifically, its most popular, recently uploaded video. This is the result of deliberate, consistent and focused work by the ROH over the past two years, with World Ballet Day launching it into a class by itself. To be more specific, the ROH has more “channel authority” for the term “ballet” than any other ballet organization, anywhere. In fact, even their channel popped up on the first page of search results after World Ballet Day.

As a result of this channel authority, when the ROH uploads a new video, it will likely show up among the top search results on YouTube. Due to this placement, that video will get significant traffic from people searching for ballet, which means that, provided the video is interesting (and the content quality for the ROH has clearly been high), the ROH will generate … more channel authority.

Now imagine this: you’re in charge of marketing for a ballet company getting ready to upload a trailer for your upcoming Nutcracker. Simultaneously, someone in your city has seen some dance for the first time, and is now looking for a ballet experience. The video that the viewer is most likely to watch first is the latest video from the Royal. This is “channel authority” in action. Let’s assume that in 2014, this will be a trailer for Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which will be simulcast into theaters worldwide on December 16, 2014, after generating plenty of buzz when the National Ballet of Canada brought it to Lincoln Center in September.

After your prospective patron watches the video, he or she watches others, and as a result a.) decides to convince the whole family to go to see Alice at the local cinema, and b.) boost the Royal’s channel authority more. What that viewer doesn’t do is ever come across your local company’s trailer – why would they – it’s buried deep within the pages of search results that no one will ever get to.

What could be the ultimate outcome?

Just like American sports fans today who may fall in love with soccer, and cheer for a club based 5,000 miles away while ignoring the one in their own backyard, American ballet fans tomorrow are primed to subscribe to a ballet company that they will rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to see live, but can still enjoy through one of many different distribution channels. Sure these new ballet fans might be aware of the local ballet company and might even go to the occasional performance, but which ballet company will dominate their mindshare and conversations? Which ballet company will they be more likely to share with their friends?

How can we solve this problem?

This is a problem TenduTV began to address with exploratory support from both the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. TenduTV was involved in the creation of Cultureband – the first YouTube multichannel network for culture and the arts.

During our pilot phase, which included roughly 30 arts organizations, we came to two broad conclusions:

  1. YouTube is the single most important audience development and engagement mechanism for the cultural sector.
  2. There is a severe lack of both YouTube expertise and capacity within the cultural sector, resulting in massive underperformance of arts organizations’ YouTube channels.

On a macro level, this problem isn’t just about one ballet company outperforming another. It’s about what building sustainable audiences really means in the wake of the arts being historically and systemically outperformed at the point of discovery by every other key entertainment sector. To put a number on it, let’s assume that the cultural sector is being outperformed by 1 percent a day (it’s likely more) – that would mean that the basic discoverability of the arts has been outpaced by other entertainment options by 1400 percent over the span of just one year. In theory, this should be terrifying. In reality, we’re already three or four years into this cycle.

To reverse the trend, we must do better. Before we can do better, we need to start asking the right questions.

Marc KirschnerMarc Kirschner is the founder and CEO of TenduTV/Cultureband, which empowers the artist to audience connection across major digital video platforms and channels, including iTunes, YouTube, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play and others. He is also a proud supporter of AS Roma.


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