Up Periscope! Your Theatre May Be Infested By Meerkats!

March 27th, 2015 § 8 comments

Are you still grumbling about “tweet seats”? Oh, that is so 2013. Time to get with the program and start worrying about the newest development in mobile tech, which could have a vastly more significant impact on the live performing arts.

Meerkat logoAt this year’s SXSW Festival, a new app, Meerkat, saw a frenzy of adoption by attendees, so much so that Twitter moved to quickly curtail the app’s access to Twitter data. The reason for that draconian move came clearer yesterday when the app Periscope, which is owned by Twitter, was launched as a direct competitor to Meerkat.

So what do they do? Both apps allow you to stream live video from your phone. Now, instead of taking something so pedestrian as a photograph via Instagram, or so cumbersome as shooting a video and then uploading it to YouTube, anyone with an iPhone and a dream can relay what they’re seeing in real time to their connections on these services. This will of course result in streams from countless teens doing teen oriented things for the entertainment of other teens, but it will also turn everyone who wishes to be into an instant broadcaster into one. Yesterday, Periscope immediately became a source for realtime video of the tragic explosion and fire in New York’s East Village.

Of course, as I experimented with Periscope (I’ve loaded Meerkat, but not tried it yet), I realized how significantly this could have an effect on live entertainment. Now, anyone adept enough at manipulating a smartphone from an audience seat might well be streaming your show, your concert, your opera to their friends and followers. If they can do so with a darkened screen and sufficient circulation to keep the blood from leaving their upraised hand and arm, the only thing stopping them would be vigilant ushers, chastising nearby patrons and battery life. For however long they sustain their stream, your content is on the air – and unlike YouTube, where if you find it, you can seek to have it removed, this is instantaneous and so there’s no taking it back.

I should say that I’m not endorsing this practice, any more than say, a play about graffiti artists is exhorting its audience to go out and start marring buildings with graffiti. I’m just pointing out that there’s a big new step in technology which could serve to let your content leak out into the world in a way that’s much harder to control than before (while also offering many new creative opportunities for communication) – and since these apps are just the first of their kind, they and competing apps will be rolling out ever more effective tools to stream what’s happening right in front of you, just as cell phone cameras and video will continue to improve their quality and versatility.

Scared yet?

Some will quickly say, as they have from the moment cell phones started ringing during soliloquies and operas, that there should be some way to simply jam signals inside entertainment venues. But the answer to that remains the same: private entities like theatre owners cannot employ such technology (which does exist) because they would be breaking the law by interfering with the public airwaves. No matter that the photos, video and streams may be violating copyright. That kind of widespread tampering with communications wouldn’t be allowed – and if it ever were, it could very well have a negative effect on patrons’ willingness to attend.

Periscope logoThe quality of streams via these apps would leave much to be desired (think of your stream also capturing the heads of those in front of you, and the couple on your left whispering about their dinner plans). They’d hardly capture the work on stage at its best, but if your choice is $400 a ticket for Fish in the Dark or a free, erratic stream, you just might choose the latter.

Movie companies have been fighting in-theatre bootlegging since the advent of small video cameras, and one hears stories about advance screenings with ushers continually patrolling the aisles in search of telltale red lights (sometimes wearing night vision goggles) and assorted laser and infrared technologies designed to mar the surreptitious image capturing. But does that seem desirable or even feasible at live theatres?

I’m not shrieking about this problem because I expect plenty of others will. That said, I’m also not about to just instill fear in your hearts and run away. Having just chastised others for enumerating arts problems without offering ideas on how to address them, here’s my thought on how to try to stave off the onslaught of Meerkat and Periscope and their ilk: we have to solve the issues that are preventing U.S. based organizations from cinecasting on the model of NT Live.

Yes, the Metropolitan Opera has built a strong following for their Met Opera Live series. But we’re not seeing that success translate to other performing arts in a significant way, with theatre the most backward of all. I know it may seem counterintuitive, but if people have the opportunity to access high quality, low cost video of stage performances, they’re going to be considerably less interested in cheap live bootlegs in real time. It won’t stop the progression, but it will offer a more appealing alternative.

Video is now in the hands of virtually every person who attends the theatre, the opera, the ballet and so on. Short of frisking or wanding people for phones and having them secured in lockers at every performance space (can you imagine?), the genie is out of the bottle. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not keen on the ramifications of these advances either, but there’s no point in damning reality. The question now is how do the arts respond – by seeking to police its audiences as if attending a performance resembled an ongoing TSA checkpoint, or by offering alternatives that just might make the newest developments unappealing or irrelevant?

But the field, commercial and not-for-profit alike, needs to get a move on, because even if this is the first you’ve heard of Periscope and Meerkat, it won’t be the last. Just wait until smartphones can record and stream in 3D.

P.S. Last week when I saw the Radio City Spring Spectacular, there was a caution against flash photography – not all photography, just flash. There may well have been a warning about video, but all it would have taken was a fake Twitter account and one of these apps to start sharing parts of the show with you as an untraceable scofflaw. Just imagine if I had activated Meerkat a bit sooner.


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  • Adam Odsess-Rubin

    This technology could also create free publicity for theaters. If someone streams a clip of your show to Twitter, maybe their followers will want to go themselves.

    • Not only free publicity… I can easily imagine incorporating it into performance art, say a Naim June Paik Improve for the masses.

      I should also note that while Meerkat and Periscope are getting a bit of media attention after SXSW, I’ve been streaming live video from my phone for years. Qik. Livestream, Ustream, Bambuser. It’s a long list that has been around for a long time. The question is, is it finally ready to jump the chasm.

      • You rightly point out that these aren’t the first live streaming apps, but they do seem to be the ones that are grabbing the headlines, and there appears to be a social media model they’re using that may well prove the key to broader adoption. Right now, while Periscope is so new, I found people following my test streams to whom I have no connection – I just happened to be live when they happened to be checking the app out.

    • The issue of video as publicity is an interesting one. There’s no question that awareness can be raised, but shows tend to be pretty controlling of when and how their content is seen. It’s the lack of control that’s likely to concern them.

      • Brandon Moore

        Unfortunately “control” and social marketing don’t really go together. Theatres need to find creative ways to empower their fans to BE fans in the social media age – and accept that it will mean letting go of that “control.”

  • Aaron Simms

    I’m actually writing my thesis on live streaming broadway. I address a lot of what you are talking about, Howard. It’s a relevant and exciting time for theater and technology.

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