The internet has certainly changed the way theatre information is disseminated and the way theatre news is covered. Playbill On-Line and its competitors, as well as show websites and fansites have altered the nature of how and when theatre news and gossip reaches the public. However, theatre itself has yet to make real inroads on the internet.
Much of that has been due to technological limitations of home computers and non-industry internet connections and servers. Also, it tends to be assumed that performances shown on a computer would have the same loss of excitement as they often do when broadcast on television. On a basic business level, there's also no proven model that using the web as an outlet for theatrical production is economically viable.
All that said, some people have tried to make inroads. Before Pseudo.com crashed, that website a mix of public access-style TV programming, radio and theatrically-oriented material. However, a strong audience following in large numbers never materialized, and sponsorship never rose to the level of costs.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Chris Hunt, Chief Executive Officer of Online Classics, is hoping to take a more solvent and higher-class approach. Onlineclassics.com, which launched in January 2000, already has more than 250 hours of classical music concerts, ballet and theatrical performances (including Beckett plays and Othello) archived online. Most recently, the site has been offering Simon Callow's solo show, The Mystery of Charles Dickens. All onlineclassics.com content is streamed in Windows Media format and can be donwloaded via Media Player, a common, free-to-download, Windows-environment software.
Asked why he's chosen the internet to disseminate arts programming rather than other forms of media, Hunt told Playbill On-Line, "The idea is to enfranchise people who can't see what we're doing on stage and on TV. The notion is that the internet is a completely international medium. We can show what's happening in theatre all over the world. That's the starting position. The website will have everything from Shakespeare to more modern stuff." But even in these years of cable modems and T1 access, has internet technology gotten to the point where watching the computer is as glitch free as watching TV? Hunt admits that there's "not a lot we can do about the tech problems. In America about 20 percent of people have that technology — surprisingly high for broadband connection. That's higher than most other countries. Internationally we have 15 percent. The vast majority are still using a 56K [modem] connection. For now, there's not much we can do except watch the growth of broadband."
Continued Hunt, "I come from a television background. I was always the first to complain if the picture wasn't brilliant. Pictures on the `net are getting better all the time, though not up to television. Even at 300K with a half-decent service provider, we'll give you pictures that are not TV quality but close to VHS quality. It's a decent viewing experience. Where that can fall down is some providers are more genuine in what they provide. A 56K isn't always 56K of data; they all give you just a little bit less. If they give you more, that causes buffering, to pause and catch up. So they do 50 out of 56K, and no one will argue about that. Some give you less and less when things get busy. They go down to 7K. They haven't got the bandwidth for all the people who are connecting. That's when the pictures start getting appalling and people get upset. That's why it's hard to generalize about picture quality. And we're slightly ahead of our time in that sense. But it's not as if the clock can be turned back."
Asked how he decides on content for Online Classics, Hunt replied, "We're trying to put on the best of what's already there but in a way that suits the medium as well as possible. For instance, the National Theatre's The Merchant of Venice, Trevor Nunn's production. We went to see it thinking, "everyone's bored with Shakespeare, oh God." We came out realizing we had to do something. We took it to a studio and shot it using film grammar over several weeks. It cost a small fortune to do — helped by the fact that it'll also be seen on the BBC and possibly on PBS over here. We've also sold it to various countries."
Onlineclassics.com is currently free, but later this year the company will likely go to a pay-per-view and/or subscription model. As such, Hunt counts sees the internet's international reach as its most desirable feature. "It's a world-wide phenomenon. Picture the U.S. audience and multiply by about 20. Certainly the plan would not be viable if it only took in the Europe or U.S., but because it's worldwide, it does become viable.
"But we have to get the word out," Hunt adds. "The next-biggest market after the U.S. and UK is South Korea. I have no idea why they're so big; we've done no marketing there. But the broadband is exploding at a helluva rate."
Continued Hunt, "If you put a play or opera on TV in the UK, it'll get watched by half-million to a million people. But around the world that number becomes 10,000,000. The last big opera had 54,000,000. Our audience online was 700,000 over the course of this past December. And it's continuing to grow."
Upcoming theatre-related projects for Onlineclassics include a mounting of Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince, directed by the aforementioned Simon Callow; a dramatization of "The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh," and last season's production of Candide, staged by John Caird at the National Theatre. "It's a piece people have had trouble making sense of over the years," notes Hunt. "But the Bernstein Estate was very impressed with this production. It took us a year to raise the money to get the cast back (they'd gone off to do Hamlet around the world)."
Not surprisingly, Online Classics is hoping to make deals with established production companies and content providers. "We'd love to coproduce with `Great Performances,' Hunt told Playbill On-Line. "We're talking about a number of projects. And we're also talking to the RSC and the Globe Theatre in London, San Francisco opera, Bolshoi Ballet, Paris Opera about various things. We're based in the UK, but we want to be as international as possible... Economics can make it difficult. Anyone can put three webcams in the back of a theatre; it costs quite a lot of money to film something from the theatre properly."
Asked if, even with its subscription and pay-per-view model on the horizon, the site could be solvent on that basis alone, Hunt admits, "We'd still have to sell [the show] to television somewhere in the world. It couldn't just be on the internet to pay for our production costs. We try for a low upfront payment plus royalties. If it makes money, everybody gets to share. But yes, we've always had to add TV onto it. We've done this in the UK and dealt with the unions. The internet is a new medium, so it's not straightforward to see how all that will come about. But we have major investment funders in the UK who believe in what we're doing, and that it's viable. Timewise, we are ahead of the plan for profitability. We're putting up a new piece very fortnight and older pieces every week. We're still growing as a company, still maturing. Ultimately, we're trying to get the stuff out there."
— By David Lefkowitz