Everything has changed, but what role does digital streaming have in the future?

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 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 possibilitiesand 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. 

 The experiment 

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 yearthe festival offers a chance to investigate the future value of streaming events for audiencesBefore 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.

Blog 3: A roadmap to recovery

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre © Morley von Sternberg

A few months have passed and the UK is in a different place again. The vaccinations are rolling out swiftly, and hope is on the horizon after a long and difficult year. People are excited about going out again, seeing friends and attending live events. So what did the research tell us about the future of digital streaming, now that we are on the brink of returning to (a new kind of) normal?

Insight from Unlimited festival bookers

We sent a survey by email to Unlimited festival bookers after the festival ended. 20% of respondents to the survey did not live in the UK, which indicated the potential global reach of digital events compared with on-site events:

‘Wonderfully curated, and on-demand timings help as I am in a different time zone’

Importantly, approximately ¼ of respondents identified as being D/deaf or disabled, or having a long term health condition, allowing insight into their views on the future of digital streaming.

Additionally, almost ¾ of respondents stated that they found digital events more accessible than on-site events.

‘It was incredible to be able to watch & engage with such high quality art created by disabled artists. Especially as a disabled person who has been shielding for many months. Had the event not been online I would have completely missed it all’

This indicates the potential for reach and access through digital streaming, particularly for bookers with access needs.

Respondents were extremely positive about having access to the festival digitally during the pandemic, and praised Southbank Centre for the variety of events on offer as well as the multiple accessible formats on offer:

‘Variety of acts and ability to see a show I wouldn't normally be able to see due to location’

This reveals the positive experience for bookers, being able to access Unlimited festival from their homes in the UK and abroad, and of the flexibility available through on demand streaming.

However, over 80% of respondents agreed that events at a physical venue offer a more personal experience. Furthermore, 2/3rds of respondents agreed that they prefer attending events at physical venues. This reveals that despite the convenience of digital streaming, many respondents would still rather go to a physical site to see an event. Nevertheless, attendees responded extremely positively to the online festival, with 2/3rds of attendees agreeing that they would be willing to pay for digital events in future.

The research therefore reveals that for this group of respondents, while there is a preference to return to on-site events, there is an appetite for digital events in future and agreement that digital streaming offers accessibility and inclusivity to those who may not be able to visit in person. The very positive reaction to the festival points to a potential hybrid future for on-site and digital events.

Blog 4: Evaluating the focus groups

Royal Festival Hall auditorium, Southbank Centre © Victor Frankowski

For the second part of the experiment, I carried out focus groups on Zoom with two sets of MA students from Kings College London, to discuss the value and future of digital streaming.

Pros and cons of digital versus on-site events

Students outlined affordability and convenience, including on demand watching from home, as the most positive benefits from digital streaming. They noted that digital events could open Southbank Centre up globally, and make events accessible to those that can’t afford to come to London. They also commended the range of free events:

‘…there’s no way that I could pay to see the whole festival, so that’s a real pro for it being online and free because it just financially opens it up to so many more people’

However, while it was convenient to watch online, some found it hard to focus on the screen for long periods, with many distractions at home.

Overwhelmingly, compared with the survey bookers, all the students cited that they preferred to see events at a venue rather than online. Many felt that digital events could not offer the same emotional pull, ‘atmosphere’, ‘authenticity’ or ‘ceremony’ involved with going to see a live event.

Barriers and accessibility

Students cited that older relatives who had access issues had benefited from increased digital streaming. Students also praised the Unlimited festival for providing multiple accessible versions of events online for disabled visitors, such as BSL interpreting, captioning and audio description.

However, others countered that not everyone, including some of the students themselves, may always have access to good Internet connections and streaming technologies.

Future booking

All the students stated that they were keen to return to live events at venues and indicated strong preference for this over digital events, especially after a year of lockdown. However, students were now more open to digital events due to their experiences, and cited the potential for digital events to reach broader audiences:

‘I would still be open to going to digital events, but it would be a second option… I think it would be good to keep online events going because it does open it up to so many more people.’

Compared with the survey bookers, the students, who may have less disposable income, were less willing to pay for digital events. However, some would consider paying for digital events in future if there was an interactive element on offer that offered an incentive, such as a live Q&A on Zoom.

So, what’s next?

Through the experiment, my aim was to investigate whether streaming has a future at Southbank Centre beyond the pandemic.

These research findings point to the consensus that many visitors will choose to book events on-site given the choice in future, and this will be where the bulk of programming will return. However, respondents valued and were more open to digital events during a time when no-one could venture outdoors, and the research showed that digital events can offer new opportunities for Southbank Centre to become even more inclusive and accessible.

The experiment only covered a fraction of Southbank Centre’s attendees and further research would be needed for a more accurate conclusion. However, I believe that there is potential for a hybrid future. While many visitors will return to physical venues, programming additional digital events would allow Southbank Centre to reach broader and larger audiences without capacity restrictions or geographical barriers, and to provide inclusive access to those who may not be able to come to the site.

Sharon Chou, Marketing Manager, Southbank Centre  

Head and shoulders Sharon Chou

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. 

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Resource type: Case studies | Published: 2021