Takahiko Iimura — Charlotte Moorman performing on Nam June Paik’s TV Cello wearing TV Glasses, NYC, 1971

Theatre Can’t Compete with Netflix

I wrote this piece in response to audience feedback around my article “The Future of the Performing Arts in the United States of America” — specifically that it lacked:

a. Clear directions and an actionable way forward for performing arts leaders to progress their institutions in these unsettling times. I end this article with a 3-step process accordingly.

b. A response to a key question that I pose at its outset: whether or not there is a case to be made for conceiving and supporting performing arts institutions amid proliferating streaming services. And, moreover, whether the reason for that is “liveness” or another quality beyond. I address these questions in this article.

The inspiration behind my work is simple: that many traditionally brick and mortar business leaders, including arts administrators, continue to refer to their organizations’ capacity to develop amazing “experiences” as their reason for existence without defining what an experience actually is. I think that if leaders are going to leverage “experience” as their business’ core value proposition, then they would be well served to define it.

My definition of experience is agon – two forces wrestling in service of a mission or a core truth. If a performing arts organization is putting forth great "experience" for audience members as their reason for existence, then they are in the business of crafting a vision / force for competition that can tango with an audience in service of a mission worthy of sustained competition for the long-haul. This is not a revolutionary concept. And yet, somehow, very few arts organizations bear a clearly articulated, singular reason for their existence.

Moreover, media companies — including streaming services — are in the same business of “experience” creation and distribution. I see media as the agon between audience and knowledge source in service of truth. A perceived difference between media and experience, however, is that media also deals with audience and knowledge as commodities in their own right that serve advertisers (Phil Napoli’s dual-product marketplace). Where do advertisers fit within the central agon? They do not, unless they are operating in service of the wrestling match (which is an example of authentic alignment — what all marketers should strive for in their partnership strategies). Otherwise, the advertisements diminish the pursuit of the truth and layer on motivational forces that deflect from the central agon. I posit that in a not-for-profit performing arts organization’s Board of Directors and sponsors often play similar roles…as their motivations often exist outside the realm of the agon.

For that matter, an arts administrator’s very own motivations might too (i.e. the artistic director's best friend wrote a really terrible play about a random subject…and the artistic director produces it notwithstanding), as they do in many other contexts. Like when the C-suite deals with driving short-term profits to pad their pockets when it does not benefit their company in the long-term. Or when a President pursues initiatives in service of his own agenda and that are not for the good of the country.

The ultimate goal of experience or media facilitators, in a pure context, is to enable a wrestling match that moves both competing forces forward and sustains the pursuit of the mission / core truth. If an audience becomes disinterested by what the arts organization or knowledge source puts forth as their vision, then the relationship dies and there is no need for an intermediary between the two parties (directors, actors, costume designers, ushers, PR professionals, journalists, UX/UI designers, middle management alike). Likewise, if the brand loses total control of the match (i.e. they produce a total clunker, the seats are uncomfortable, an usher spits on the audience member, tickets become untenably expensive) then the relationship dies too…and the intermediary, once again, goes with it.

Photo by Mollie Sivaram on Unsplash

But what of a company like Netflix that leverages mass data and a whole boatload of content to drive subscription bucks and whose content is not compromised by ad dollars (which are not part of its business model). They have become the ultimate pure content purveyor, with great quality work that is built specifically to tango with an audience and create greater engagement with the platform in service of efficient, seamless access. Netflix, like Amazon, can leverage huge swaths of data to become a one-stop-hyper-personalized-shop for content and craft a corresponding seamless process around it to deliver content on an addressable level to folks' homes. This is the ultimate form of mass personalization – the perfect business for the experience economy, right?

Not necessarily. We are now seeing various new streaming services being brought to bear – from Peacock and Hulu to Disney+ - that are competing with similar business models albeit with different content libraries. And, ultimately, the lack of distinctive brand marketing around the channels and media companies themselves could spell trouble. Why? Because, in the streaming services (separate and beyond the content sitting on their platforms), audiences will have a vapid entity with which to compete that lacks any sort of mission that is unique from its direct competitors. What is the difference between Netflix and Hulu? Their respective content libraries. Plain and simple.

So is a performing arts organization useful or relevant today when its leaders cannot leverage data or drive efficiency, access and seamlessness the same way and when they cannot own that kind of immense content library? The only way that performing arts organizations are going to be able to survive is to deliver singular experience themselves, that exists totally beyond the value that a Netflix or Hulu can muster up. And, beyond that, my research (as described in several earlier articles including this one) shows that (not just) live, (but also) multi-sensory, interactive content is perceived as more experiential / as more of an agon than its digital counterparts. So arts administrators (and those of retail companies, schools, hotels, restaurants and other businesses that all trying to compete for a slice of the ‘experience’ pie) actually have an advantage, even and especially when up against data-driven digital business so long as they they heed the following:

3 Steps for Building the New Performing Arts Organization

  1. Stand for Something Singular: Stop trying to compete on one-size-fits-all, randomly assembled content, because vagueness will never succeed amid digital transformation and when digital streaming services are privy to mass data. Netflix wins that fight every time. Sure, they too might be bound to lose in the long-run as more and more streaming services come to play with similarly massive content libraries. I see a mass consolidation of these services under one canopy (or the breaking down of content libraries onto the original creators’ own channels) playing out not too far down the line. Learn from their weaknesses and carve out your own, unique space in the marketplace.
  2. Find Your Niche Through Research: Dive deep and narrow through market research to understand a niche opportunity in a market for new experience. To quote my earlier article: “Is the mission of many to give voice to young Asian choreographers? To unleash the funniest new playwrights? Is it to transform great American literary classics into drama? Is it to inspire children to play the Blues?” What do your customers want that is not currently available to them?
  3. Build to the Mission: Create a brand in service of your singular mission (again, NOT “to make people feel” / “to produce bold new work”) rooted in research. Develop live, interactive, multi-sensory offerings that help to help the brand come to life to best compete in the wrestling match with your audience. Concepts cultivated for totally unrelated markets and audiences in different contexts (i.e. those which are created on Broadway) are NOT usually those that will serve a sustained, singular agon.

And, lastly, break legs!



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