Will Coronavirus Permanently Change How We Consume the Arts?

The Alley Theatre has been showing plays at home for enthusiasts who can't come to a live show.T
The Alley Theatre has been showing plays at home for enthusiasts who can't come to a live show.T Photo by Lynn Lane
Theaters are doing online shows. Intimate streamed concerts are replacing huge arena productions. Movies, which cannot screen in cinemas, are heading direct to Amazon and Apple TV. Since the country has shut down due to the pandemic, it has been a necessity for performing arts organizations, film and TV studios, and musicians to re-think the way they do business. And with large gatherings unlikely to be permitted for at least a few more months, some of these measures will need to remain in place.

But what about after that? Will they simply revert back to business as usual or will a new paradigm emerge?

Think for a moment about restaurants. Texas is now allowing them to open at 25 percent capacity. But not everyone is embracing the concept. For some restaurant owners, the combination of to-go and takeout alcohol has offered a way to keep businesses afloat while only 25 percent of customers forces them to not only set aside business that had been working, but assume liabilities they might not want to take on.

The same applies to live performance. Even if concert halls and theaters were allowed to open to smaller crowds in large venues, the numbers say it is unlikely to be profitable. The cost to open and hire staff (or rent a hall if you are a touring musician) likely outweighs the ticket sales. Perhaps some balance between small live performances and streamed shows makes more sense even if audiences are such a big part of the live experience.

For TV corporations, it's even more complex. Network broadcasting has been hemorrhaging viewers and dollars to streaming services for years now. They have only found limited success in their own services. People are content to pay if it means streaming without commercials and not having to wait a week to see the next episode. During the coronavirus, binge watching has practically been a competitive sport.

Another valuable lesson TV should learn from this is perfection is not a prerequisite for success. Late night talk shows from home, Zoom interviews and peeks behind the scenes are being eaten up by audiences hungry for something different. Stars don't need to float above us in the ether for us to pay attention. In some cases, knowing they are like us is not only interesting, but comforting. Who doesn't want to see the inside of Aidy Bryant's adorable apartment or meet Kate Kinnon's cat on SNL? Who doesn't think Seth Meyers being forced to tape his show in an attic while dodging a wasp and using a space heater for warmth isn't charming as hell?

And lest we not forget, there's the motion picture business, which has been seeing a slow but steady decrease in theater ticket sales for seemingly decades. In desperation, they sent a number of films directly to streaming and, for many of those films, it has had modest success. Maybe the movie industry needs to have limited openings with big budget films and let smaller movies try a different route. Instead of reporting how poorly a film did in release, let it find an audience elsewhere on its merits.

None of this is to say that we should expect theaters to close, stages to go dark and concert venues to stop hosting huge tours anymore than we should expect sports to pack up and quit. Crowds will eventually return and performance culture will have a revival. But, hopefully, these industries will be better prepared for the future now that it has been thrust right into their dressing rooms. The old models of ratings, live performance and box office sales are being pushed aside for user reviews, online performances and streaming services..

It's been coming for a while. Maybe the coronavirus was what we needed to finally make the performing arts world realize it.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke