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Are HD broadcasts “cannibalizing” the Metropolitan Opera’s live audiences?

By James Steichen


When the Metropolitan Opera launched its high-definition broadcast initiative in 2006, hopes were very high. The basic concept was simple: the Met would offer live cinema broadcasts of its Saturday matinee performances to a network of movie theaters around the country. For many decades the Met had offered such access to radio listeners, but now audiences far from New York could both see and hear their favorite Met stars from their local cineplex, for only about $20 a ticket, less than even a standing-room ticket at the company’s home at Lincoln Center.

Soon to enter their eighth season, the Met “Live in HD” has indeed emerged as the most successful initiative of the tenure of General Manager Peter Gelb, whose main goal has been to make opera a more popular and accessible art form. The HD broadcasts are the most spectacular aspect of this agenda and are now being screened in almost 2,000 movie theaters in over 60 different countries. The Met has also established a SiriusXM satellite radio station, as well as offering its own “Met On Demand” service with extensive online content.

But despite these innovative programs, Gelb’s record as leader of the Met, the largest performing arts organization in the country, has been rocky at best. Alex Ross of The New Yorker has repeatedly questioned Gelb’s artistic vision and institutional priorities, in particular the massive investment in Robert LePage’s elaborate “machine” for the house’s new production of Wagner’s Ring. Even the amiable Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times proposed not too long ago that Gelb hire an artistic advisor of some sort, a suggestion that has yet to be acted upon. (In Gelb’s defense, the artistic vision of the company has been significantly compromised by the failing health of music director James Levine, whose sporadic presence has left artistic leadership in a semi-permanent limbo.)

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Amid such turmoil, Gelb has happily been able to point to the Met’s HD initiative has an undisputed success. Each year the broadcasts have brought in bigger audiences and more revenue, and for several seasons have been turning a profit. The cinemas that host the broadcasts are also quite happy with the results; with overall movie attendance in decline, they are grateful for the extra foot traffic, and popcorn sales.

But at the Met’s season announcement this past spring, Gelb made a somewhat stunning admission. While citing the continued success of the HD initiative in terms of attendance and revenue, he revealed that ticket sales at the Met’s actual performances had witnessed a decline. This was perhaps in part due to an ill-timed hike in ticket prices, which the Met has rescinded for the coming season. But Gelb shockingly posited an additional cause: the increased access to HD broadcasts were “cannibalizing” the Met’s live audiences.

It seems that even audiences with geographic access to the Met are increasingly opting for the mediatized Met over the live version. If even the powerful Metropolitan Opera can’t keep audiences coming in person, how does this bode for smaller regional opera companies, who now have to compete with the Met’s broadcasts in their own communities? In places such as San Luis Obispo, California, organizations are using the broadcasts as a means to identify new ticket buyers and donors, a model that other organizations would be well advised to adopt. Sports fans and pop music audiences continue to sell out live games and concerts despite the widespread availability of mediated versions. Can opera achieve this same success? For the time being, the answer remains to be seen.

James Steichen is a PhD candidate in musicology at Princeton University who is completing a dissertation on George Balanchine and the early history of the New York City Ballet. You can read more on his research into the Metropolitan Opera “Live in HD” in his Opera Quarterly article “HD Opera: A Love/Hate Story.”

Since its inception in 1983, The Opera Quarterly has earned the enthusiastic praise of opera lovers and scholars alike for its engagement within the field of opera studies. In 2005, David J. Levin, a dramaturg at various opera houses and critical theorist at the University of Chicago, assumed the executive editorship of The Opera Quarterly, with the goal of extending the journal’s reputation as a rigorous forum for all aspects of opera and operatic production.

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Image credit: Promotional web banner for the Metropolitan Opera’s 2013-14 Live in HD Season via metoperafamily.org. Used for the purposes of illustration.

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4 Responses to “Are HD broadcasts “cannibalizing” the Metropolitan Opera’s live audiences?”
  1. [...] I’m a guest blogger today for the Oxford University Press blog or “OUPblog” as they call it. They invited me to offer some additional thoughts on my article about the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcast initiative. I am grateful for the opportunity to muse on some of the more recent developments of this ever-evolving phenomenon! Read my post here. [...]

  2. Gretchen says:

    Interesting article, but two thoughts in response. One, the last time I bought a Met Live in HD ticket, it was $26, almost 10 bucks more than the basic standing room ticket price, $17.

    Which leads to my second point: People are willing to pay MORE for the opera at the movies experience than go to the opera house. So why is that? Going to the opera at the movies is more convenient (even for people who live in NYC), the seats are more comfortable, you get behind the scenes interviews, you can get junk food, etc., etc.

    The way people consume opera is changing, but I wouldn’t term this “cannibalizing,” no more than mobile phones “cannibalized” minutes from landlines. There were winners and losers–some made money, some lost–but the demand is there. Opera companies need to figure out how to meet it.

  3. Whitney says:

    Look, I think Gelb threw Live in HD under the proverbial bus. Broadcast of live arts/theatrical events tends to attract an audience that is either 1) geographically challenged or 2) budget conscious. If he had cited any actual data, I doubt that there is a real correlation between regular MET subscribers who are willing to pay $100+ for the experience of dressing up and being at the Opera with their champagne breaks versus the layperson who wants to spend $20 to get their culture fix.

    I feel like the whole discussion is hearsay until there are real numbers to talk about.

  4. Rosemary says:

    I seem to run into older Salt Lake City area opera-lovers who refuse to attend a live in HD performance, citing “live in the flesh is the only way to see opera”! Personally, I (a huge fan of HD) love seeing the costume details up close and not missing the acting because I’m in the cheap seats. I also like being able to drive 10′, not have to get dressed up, spending a wonderful 3-4 hours of opera with time and energy left to do what I need to on a Saturday.

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