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The Dallas Opera\'s 2014 simulcast of <em>The Barber of Seville</em> at AT&amp;T Stadium

Two Sides to Every Screen

In his latest Off the Cuff, The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny considers the effects of stadium simulcasts and HD broadcasts.



published Sunday, July 6, 2014

 

Dallas —  In a recent interview on BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters, the General Manager of The Metropolitan Opera, Peter Gelb, revealed that 75 percent of the American theatrical audience for the Met HD broadcasts is older than 65, and 30 percent of the total audience is older than 75. This surprising announcement started me thinking about different segments of the opera audience, particularly in light of TDO’s emphasis on “community footprint” as the central element of its audience development strategy. As a reminder, The Dallas Opera measures its community impact through three interrelated elements: performances in the Winspear Opera House, simulcasts and other community events, and its expanding education program for students and teachers. In the fiscal year just ended, for every ticket sold for a Dallas Opera performance in the Winspear Opera House, the Dallas Opera reached nearly twice as many people in the community through programs including simulcasts, five-dollar family concerts and shows, public lectures and education programs.

Historically, an opera company had just two primary distribution channels to deliver top-quality, full-length versions of its productions to the public. The first channel was the opera house setting, although that option has expanded in recent years to take in other venues, including smaller theaters and “found spaces” such as warehouses, train stations, open air plazas and swimming pools. The second channel was local radio, and sometimes television; the Met’s Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts built a loyal national audience over a period of decades, and, in many ways, defined the operatic landscape at that time. In more recent years, some opera companies in Europe have been able to grow this distribution model through Internet broadcasts or streaming. At TDO, we broadcast regularly on local radio, but since it is difficult to assess how long a listener focuses on a particular radio broadcast, we have chosen not to include these patrons in our community footprint calculations. We do know that, in the context of TDO’s overall community impact, radio listeners, plus visitors to our website, represent significant “icing on the cake.”

With the advent of advanced screen technology, high-definition video, and more powerful computers, many opera companies have begun to simulcast into “non-traditional” locations; this approach creates a third distribution channel for opera. The companies presenting in this way include the Royal Opera House in London, Houston Grand Opera, San Francisco Opera, Opera Philadelphia and many others—including Dallas. (Although I believe we are the only American opera company to simulcast to a football stadium).

Then, in 2006, Peter Gelb launched the Met HD broadcasts in neighborhood cinemas, nationwide. At present, these broadcasts are carried by around 1,900 theaters in the U.S. and abroad, creating a vibrant-and-still-growing fourth distribution channel for opera. I am strong supporter of these broadcasts, as I believe that any program that builds interest in the art form will ultimately benefit the field. According to Met statistics, they also generate much-needed profits for the company. Other prominent opera and ballet companies have adopted the movie theater model, including the Royal Opera House, Russia’s Mariinsky Theatre and La Scala. Some presenters even offer a 2D or 3D option, ensuring that these broadcasts take full advantage of the latest cutting-edge technologies. Whether these latest contenders for audience dollars will make an appreciable dent in the Met’s dominant market-share remains to be seen, but it is notable that the recent entrants tend to be the strongest, and most iconic, musical “brands.”  (For more on musical brands, see my piece, “Building Musical Brands that Deliver,” here.)

For those of us at The Dallas Opera, there are two vitally important questions regarding our AT&T stadium simulcasts and the Met HD broadcasts. First, whether they cannibalize existing ticket sales at TDO, and, second, the amount of patron overlap between Dallas Opera simulcasts and HD broadcasts from other sources.

To the former point, we have observed no measurable cannibalization of single ticket sales from either simulcasts or HD broadcasts. In 2012, the year of TDO’s first stadium simulcast, the North Texas community requested around 32,000 tickets to attend a free showing of Mozart’s The Magic Flute (by complete coincidence, the same opera title the Met used for its first HD broadcast back in 2006). Of that number, around 15,000 people showed up—a Texas record. During the run of six Magic Flute performances, TDO was performing another classic opera simultaneously: Verdi’s La traviata. Single ticket sales for these two extremely popular operas were neck-and-neck, despite the potential drain on single ticket sales caused by the availability of free simulcast tickets for Flute. While we certainly see some overlap between our patrons at the Winspear and at Met broadcasts, there is no evidence of any measurable cannibalization of our single ticket sales. This is what we would have expected, given the differences in the overall patron experiences for an opera in a movie theater versus an opera house.

On the second point, we have also been able to compare the audience for TDO’s simulcasts at AT&T Stadium with the Metropolitan Opera’s movie-theater audience. Although we provide free parking and free admission for the AT&T Stadium simulcasts, we do ask patrons to sign up in advance; this requirement allows us to complete detailed audience surveys after the event, and is important in understanding the geographic and demographic make-up of our audience. When we compare patron ages between TDO’s stadium simulcasts and the Met’s typical American movie theater audience, the differences are quite startling:

Photo: The Dallas Opera
A comparison of audiences for the Met HD broadcast and the Dallas Opera simulcasts

To summarize, whereas around 75 percent of the Met’s American HD broadcast audience is age 65 or older, only around 20 percent of TDO’s simulcast audience is 65 or older. In fact, around 80 percent of TDO’s audience is younger than 65, and 60 percent is younger than 55. This finding implies no criticism of the demographics of the Met HD broadcast, but highlights that movie theater and stadium audiences are complementary, with limited overlap. The demographics for TDO’s subscribers would fall somewhat between these two extremes, by the way.

What we also know is that the simulcast audience is more age-and-income-diverse than our subscriber base. It is also more representative of the diverse ethnic makeup of the broader community. TDO’s simulcasts also draw their audience from cities and towns located throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex—one of the largest and fastest-growing population centers in the U.S.

As opera companies look toward the future, and strive to maximize paid attendance, as well as making a mark and increasing their impact within the community, it is clear that all four distribution channels—opera house, TV and radio, simulcast, and HD broadcast—will continue to be vitally important. And, it is very reassuring to see that, at least in North Texas, they are all creating new interest in opera.

In closing, I would also like to thank our union partners for their enthusiastic support of these special events: the American Guild of Musical Artists, the American Federation of Musicians, and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. We are grateful to all of you!

 

◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears every month in TheaterJones.com. Below is a list of previous columns:

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Two Sides to Every Screen
In his latest Off the Cuff, The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny considers the effects of stadium simulcasts and HD broadcasts.
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