Everything has changed, but what role does digital streaming have in the future?
What role does digital streaming have in the future asks Sharon Chou, South Bank Centre as part of her Fellowship at the Audience Diversity Academy
Blog 1: Everything has changed
When I applied to the Audience Diversity Academy (ADA) at the beginning of 2020, I had many ideas for progressing work on audience development at Southbank Centre. I am currently the lead for audience development and destination marketing in my team, and I was excited about continuing this journey of experimentation and learning on the ADA course.
Cue the COVID-19 pandemic and nine months later, the future remains uncertain for the arts and cultural sector, and everything has changed.
What role does digital streaming have in the future?
I had felt somewhat lost as to how I could run a viable experiment with the continued lockdown and closure of our venues. But I’ve met my peer fellows remotely, attended webinars which have provided me with new perspectives on digital activism and scrappy experimentation, and had some interesting conversations with my mentor Michael, all of which have given me some inspiration.
As Kat Francois discussed in a thought-provoking webinar about ‘challenging narratives’, COVID-19 has changed us all forever, and things may never go back to how they were. This change applies to our working environment too, and in the ways that we reach audiences. As Kat pointed out the world has opened up in many ways.
So how can we use this as a force for positive change? How can we relate this to what our audiences would like in a post-COVID world?
There is no doubt that COVID-19 has impacted on the ability to interact with live art, culture and performance. However, the digital world has opened up new possibilities, and arts organisations including Southbank Centre have adapted to this changing landscape by streaming recorded and live events online. This has been a major shift in how work is presented and consumed, and enables organisations to reach new audiences, without geographical or physical limitations.
In January 2021, Southbank Centre will run its fifth biennial Unlimited festival. The festival showcases ambitious creative projects by outstanding disabled artists and companies. This will be the first ever digital Unlimited festival, due to COVID-19.
While the Unlimited festival represents a fraction of the breadth of multi-arts events that Southbank Centre puts on each year, the festival offers a chance to investigate the future value of streaming events for audiences. Before the pandemic, events were almost entirely presented live at Southbank Centre’s physical venues; Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and Hayward Gallery, or in the outdoor spaces. But digital streaming has changed the way many of us access art, and in a post-COVID world, does digital still have a role to play?
I’m shaping what the experiment could look like, but my aim is to investigate whether streaming has a future at Southbank Centre beyond the pandemic. The experiment also offers the chance to gain insight into the value of streamed events, now and in the future for our audiences with access needs – and what streaming means for broadening access and inclusivity.
Blog 2: Is digital streaming here to stay?
Attendees at Unlimited Festival 2016, Southbank Centre. © Manuel Vason
The most accessible Unlimited festival to date
Now that 2020 is over, we start the new year with tentative hope for the future, and plans for live audiences to return to our venues – although when this will be possible is not yet certain. And when audiences return, will they all wish to come back to our venues, or do some audiences now prefer the convenience and ease of digital streaming?
Southbank Centre’s Unlimited festival (Wednesday 13 – Sunday 17 January), showcases outstanding disabled artists through 28 cross-artform events, and is our first ever fully digital Unlimited. Attendees can participate in and watch events on-line with BSL, captioning, audio description and speech-to-text provision across various events.
This fully digital festival offers a timely opportunity to:
- explore audience’s experiences of Unlimited festival,
- to explore experiences of accessible digital events where they previously would have been enjoyed on-site,
- and to investigate what streaming means for enhancing access and inclusivity.
These themes form the basis of the research objectives.
Researching without expectations
I made a decision, following course learnings and from speaking with my mentor, to use this experiment to broadly investigate audience opinions on the festival and on digital streaming, using resources available to me in these unusual times and circumstances. Rather than outlining strict hypotheses of what I expect findings and outcomes to be, I decided to instead use a change navigation process to explore and engage, and to carry out experimentation (some of it scrappy) without expectations.
The past year was truly unprecedented in every way. We have never before turned to digital platforms for so many aspects of our lives, so I believe that any findings will be pertinent and new.
Implementing the experiment
To shape the experiment, I am working with internal Unlimited, Creative learning and Data teams.
The first aspect of the research involves amending a survey that will be sent to Unlimited festival bookers after the festival has ended, with questions exploring responses to the festival and to digital streaming and accessibility. Key to the survey will be a question asking if respondents will in future prefer to be offered on-site events, digital events, or a blend of digital and on-site events.
35% of Unlimited festival survey respondents in 2018 said that their day-to-day activities were limited because of a health problem or disability. The survey will additionally aim to explore the opinions of attendees with access needs.
The second aspect of the experiment involves running focus groups with university students who have attended Unlimited festival. Several participating students are currently living overseas due to the pandemic, so the research aims to explore opinions on the festival and the value of digital streaming for those with geographical barriers. I will aim to draw on learning from the webinars, such as investigating notions of inclusivity, and using ice breakers to encourage meaningful discussion.
The final step will be to evaluate findings using quantitative and qualitative methods. My hope is that any valuable insight gained can be used to inform internal teams and contribute to future planning.
Sharon Chou, Marketing Manager, Southbank Centre
Sharon is an experienced marketing professional, with fifteen years' experience working within London's arts, heritage and tourism sectors including top cultural attractions and destination management organisations. In her current position as Marketing Manager at Southbank Centre, Sharon leads on destination marketing and audience development, and is passionate about engaging diverse audiences and broadening access to the arts.