Natural Experiment Finds Arts Broadcasts Boosted Live Audiences

In "Digital complements or substitutes? A quasi-field experiment from the Royal National Theatre," Hasan Bakhshi and David Throsby explore whether the growing trend of broadcasting live opera, theater, dance, and music performances via satellite to movie theaters helps or hinders attendance at performance venues. By examining audience-location data from a performance at the Royal National Theatre in London, they conclude that the broadcast actually boosted live attendance numbers.

In 2009, the Royal National Theatre was the world's first theater to broadcast a performance in movie theaters. The number of people who viewed the one broadcast performance on screen was roughly equivalent to the total number of audience members who attended the three-month run of the show live at the national theater. Because many of the movie theaters were close to the live theater, audience members had the option of seeing the performance either way—perfect conditions for a "quasi-experiment" into the broadcast's effect on the live audience numbers.

The authors compared the postal codes of audience members who had attended shows at the Royal National Theatre in 2008, prior to the movie theater broadcasts, with audience members at the 2009 shows that corresponded with the broadcasts. Although the audiences for both live performances at the Royal National Theatre were demographically similar, a higher proportion of the 2009 audience members lived near one of the 70 movie theaters scheduled to broadcast the performance.

The data suggest that the broadcasts helped increase the total attendance at live performances, although in unexpected ways. The authors determined through an audience survey that, even though only a small number of people attended both live and broadcast shows, it seems the publicity surrounding the broadcasts helped push greater attendance at the live performances. Royal National Theatre ticket sales from areas near the broadcasting movie theaters increased significantly as soon as publicity details were announced in March—three months before the night of the June broadcast.

Though data from one performance can't offer ironclad proof, the implication is clear: Theaters may be able to expand their audiences significantly without compromising box office revenue by broadcasting performances to movie theaters in the region.

Bakhshi, Hasan and David Throsby. 2014. "Digital complements or substitutes? A quasi-field experiment from the Royal National Theatre." Journal of Cultural Economics 38 (1): 1-8. doi: 10.1007/s10824-013-9201-2

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