“Wine is valued by its price, not by its flavour”
- Anthony Trollope
It would be difficult to argue today that attendance and appreciation of Shakespeare’s plays are not, for the most part, restricted to the large niche of the middle classes. This is a pity, and interesting, given that his works are ridden with ribald language, iconoclastic storylines and slapstick humour. In his time, the plays were attended and enjoyed by the masses, ageless and classless. Such reach is the envy of productions performed today. High ticket prices charged by theatres – in a quest to secure enough funding every season to recoup the cost of production - must bear some of the blame. But does price, apart from acting as an immediate barrier to entry for some customers, also act as its own signifier of what the event entails, and the audience it is appropriate for?
In 2009, BBC’s Question Time hosted writer Bonnie Greer and, among others, Nick Griffin, chairman of the radical BNP. The ordeal was such that Greer was inspired to write an opera chronicling the evening’s events. Performed at the end of 2011, Greer hoped Yes would make an effective contribution to the UK debate on both immigration and racism. Such substantive content is what media like opera need in order to maintain relevance.”It’s relatively recently that opera has been seen as an entertainment for the elite”, Greer commented. “It used to be a populist medium – I’d like to play some role in reinstating that status”. This runs counter to other contemporary productions, such as Stockhausen’s operatic sci-fi saga Licht, recently performed in Birmingham. At one point, a string orchestra ascends into the air in helicopters, while later a cellist performs lying on the floor. It would be remiss not to mention the climax of the production, which, Alex Ross, writing for The New Yorker, fails to describe: ”Space does not permit a description of the scene in which [a] camel defecates seven planets”. It is hard to imagine such fare being everyone’s cup of tea. Indeed, it is this sort of seemingly self-interested, arcane and intellectually challenging art that is likely to turn people off an entire medium. Some institutions recognise this. Earlier this month the Royal Opera House hosted what they called the “first in a new series of live-streamed events to feature debate, performance, and audience questions”, around the question ‘Are opera and ballet elitist?‘.
In the past though, the Royal Opera House and other institutions have been too focused on short term gimmicks, with a focus on price, to get people through the door. The thinking is broadly logical: Why don’t more people come to the opera? / The opera is expensive / Lowering prices will attract more people to the opera. These three thoughts have plausible connections, but in reality little in common. Like ‘vulgar Marxism’, such an approach reduces the problem to its most simplistic attributes. It is a fallacy. Despite this, The Sun newspaper has in the past partnered with the ROH to offer tickets from GBP5-20. The scheme was a lottery system, guaranteeing few winners. It provides little opportunity for conversion into a regular customer. Meanwhile, both The Sun and the ROH achieve their aims of shifting brand perceptions. But there is far more that could be accomplished. The BBC reported positive reactions from those that took up the offer, “What The Sun is doing is fantastic – opening the opera up to people who wouldn’t normally be able to come”. This despite the fact that opera tickets are consistently available for GBP10 at the ROH, every season. Away from price, the English National Opera tried their own tactic in October last year, inviting people to enjoy the opera in “jeans and trainers”. But does the problem of democratising opera really have its answer in allowing people to wear denim? It seems absurd to think that a one-off event of such a nature could really attract new, long-term audiences. Indeed, The Telegraph reported on the affair, saying the ENO was missing the point, that in fact it was the “alluring glamour” of the medium that was what attracted audiences the world over; “It turns opera into an everyday thing, rather than something exceptional and magical”, wrote Rupert Christiansen. He elaborates on the problem,
“[Opera] can make for an atmosphere that outsiders and newcomers find exclusive and intimidating: it’s as though there’s a set of rules that nobody is going to explain or even admit the existence of. This… rubs up the wrong way against the Arts Council’s understandable insistence that the granting of subsidy via taxpayers’ money should mean open access at reasonable prices. Squaring this circle is a formula that nobody has yet managed to crack.”
The outgoing director of the ROH, Tony Hall – on his way to assume a new post at the BBC – wrote diary entries published last weekend in the FT. He wrote about the recent partnership established with the Theatro Municpal in Rio. Like the ROH, they are also looking to attract new audiences: “An idea I particularly like is where every seat in the house for a day a year is sold on the day for a real (about 33p)”. On the face of it this sounds noble and effective. Who wouldn’t want to see any form of entertainment, let alone an extravagantly produced opera, for a mere 33p? But let’s think about it. Doing this one day a year is miserly. It hardly encourages upselling, or long-term commitment. What it most assuredly encourages is that one day a year the opera house attracts plenty of press coverage as people line the streets queueing for such cheap tickets. Cheap tickets for one day a year is an act that smacks of condescension. And what of the price itself? Zeitgeist has written before about the power of behavioural economics. McKinsey have an interesting article on the study. To wit, for most people, consciously or otherwise, price is an overriding symbol of value. Price is used often, especially by premium brands, as a means of framing the product versus its peers. We often make irrational purchases on big-ticket items (a car being chief among these). Conversely, when something is cheap, especially when perceived as ‘too’ cheap, the consumer questions why it is at such a price, acting with suspicion. At its simplest, pricing tickets to the opera at 33p implies that it might not be something you would enjoy. The first reaction – often the most powerful – instilled in the consumer is one of trepidation.
Just as with the current government’s wrangling over minimum pricing policies for alcohol, the approach from the arts to occasionally allow the unwashed masses into their buildings misses the point. In the case of alcohol, the scheme was mainly invented to curb youth drinking, especially among the ‘working class’. But, as The Economist points out, “People on the lowest incomes, who are most price-sensitive, are surprisingly abstemious anyway; those in rich parts of the country, such as the south-east, consume copiously”. Shakespeare’s Globe does a good job of making the Bard’s plays accessible, with standing tickets for GBP5, something that Zeitgeist has taken advantage of several times over the years. It is one of the few artistic houses to have preserved this manner of watching a performance. It upholds tradition while at the same time ensuring the plays have access to a broader public. The Royal Court Theatre in London’s Sloane Square offers a few standing tickets for every performance for a mere 10p. It’s a great idea to have this option as a constant as, apart from anything else, it increases the likelihood of having returning customers who can be upsold to – or cross-sold to in the bar downstairs. Zeitgeist imagines however that the theatre could easily get away with charging ten times the amount for a standing ticket, with zero depreciable effect.
There is no doubt that a certain amount of price elasticity indeed exists with items like tickets to the opera. But occasionally releasing cheap tickets is not the whole answer. There are larger questions here on arts funding and the absence of dedicated, large-scale philanthropy in the UK that have not been discussed here, but will be important in encouraging accessibility to the arts. Earlier we mentioned the recent debate the ROH hosted asking whether people thought opera and ballet to be elitist. The problem with such a question is it immediately consigns the word ‘elitist’ to a pejorative category. One of the greatest points Jon Stewart ever made – now some years back – on The Daily Show, was that the word ‘elite’ should in some contexts be a good thing, something to be embraced. That some people excel in a certain discipline is something to be celebrated. That some art transcends others, is beautiful, challenging, creative and stimulating is something to be cherished. Instead the word and concept have become uniformly demonised. Though one could easily question ‘canon’ texts in any medium, there should be no need to mask something that is perceived as being ‘high art’, rather attention should only be paid to debunking any preconceptions about its exclusivity. Quick price gouges are most certainly not the answer to improving access to these forms of art. It takes time, relevance and above all a security in the knowledge that not everyone has to enjoy every type of entertainment. Just provide them with opportunities to be sufficiently exposed to it, without making it seem like you’re deigning to include them.
“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.”
- Henry David Thoreau
Though the brouhaha over the series House of Cards has been building steadily since its announcement almost two years ago, through rumours of budget battles between director and studio, it was upon the release of the series this week that the media meta-echo chamber really went into overdrive. The first season, with a budget far north of $100m, debuted to ebullient praise from critics. But what does it signify for the trail-blazing company’s future?
Aside from the mostly positive reviews, the series piqued the media industry’s interest for other reasons too. It is the first to be created and screened exclusively by Netflix, a company previously known for striking deals with studios to distribute and stream their content. Not satisfied solely with such (sometimes pricey) deals, the company also saw an opportunity for greater brand visibility and a separate revenue stream – assuming it eventually licenses the show regular TV networks – in fully-fledged independent production. What is also interesting is that the entire first season was made available for instant viewing, all 12 hours. By doing this the company recognised and capitalised on a trend that has been accelerating for almost a decade; people like to watch multiple episodes at once. This has never not been the case, but the weekly episodic installments of shows on network television have allowed the audience little say in the matter, and thus no room for such a habit to develop. This changed dramatically with the arrival of the DVD, specifically with affordable boxsets, as those that had missed the zeitgeists of West Wing, The Sopranos and 24 were able to quickly catch up with their obsessed brethren. Critics have often noted how the viewing of multiple episodes at once – which is how such reviews are often conducted as they usually receive a disc with several shows to consider – particularly for shows like Lost, improves the structure and narrative flow. With the arrival of boxsets, such opportunities were available to all. Indeed, marketers leveraged this enthusiasm for consecutive viewing, creating events around it. Netflix saw this with absolute clarity and allowed viewers to watch as much or little as they desired. Many, it seemed, chose to devour the whole first season in one weekend, which entertainment trade Variety covered with humourous repercussions to the viewer’s psyche, across now fewer than six stages of grief. Zeitgeist has written before about the increasing popularity of streaming, and the complementary preference that audiences have for the type of films (action, romcom, broad comedy) they like to watch when choosing such a distribution method. It is interesting to consider then just how much the viewing experience differs between a 12-hour marathon over two days, and a one-hour slice over a period of three months. As the article in Variety half-jokingly posits, “Is tantric TV viewing a thing? If it’s not, should it be?”.
Of course, Netflix aren’t alone in seeing an opportunity to delve into developing complementary products and assets. Microsoft are using the functionality of Kinect to pair with their own content development, letting children “join in” with Sesame Street, for example, and are in the process of setting up a dedicated studio for production, in Los Angeles. Amazon, which owns the streaming service LoveFilm, is also getting into the game, recently setting up Amazon Studios for original content production. At the end of last year, The Hollywood Reporter announced Amazon would be greenlighting twenty pilots, all of which were “either submitted through the studio’s website or optioned for development”. YouTube recently launched twenty professional channels on its UK website, Hulu is following suit… It really is quite startling to see such fundamental disruption and turmoil in environments where incumbent stalwarts (such as 20th Century Fox in film and Walmart in retail,) have long been accustomed to calling the shots. Could the model become completely inverted, such that the Fox network and HBO become the “dumb pipes” of the TV world, showcasing the best in internet-produced television? Maybe so, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. The Economist this week argue that one of the most important factors in Liberty Global’s recent purchase of Virgin Media was the avoidance of paying corporate tax for “years” to come. If content is still king though, a problem remains for those incumbents. The New Yorker astutely points out,
“An Internet firm like Netflix producing first-rate content takes us across a psychological line. If Netflix succeeds as a producer, other companies will follow and start taking market share… When that happens, the baton passes, and empire falls—and we will see the first fundamental change in the home-entertainment paradigm in decades.”
Netflix must tread carefully. Crucially, what seems like competitive differentiation and all-quadrant coverage now can quickly shift. Amazon’s ventures into content production will be backed up with a sizeable and perpetual stream of revenue that it derives from its e-commerce platform, which isn’t going away anytime soon. The BBC are publicly welcoming new entrants, and is devising its own tactics, such as making episodes available on iPlayer before they screen, if at all, on television. Interesting but hardly earth-shattering, and likely to make little difference to viewer preference. Netflix will have to do better than that if it wants long-term dominance of this market. It will have to be increasingly careful with its partners, too. Recent, though long-running, rumblings of discord with partners like Time Warner Cable, though seemingly innocuous, tend to be indicative of a larger battle ensuing between corporate titans. Moreover, though the act of providing a deluge of content seems new and sexy now, what about when everyone starts doing it? Chief content officer for Netflix Ted Sarantos told The Economist last week, “Right now our major differentiation is that consumers can watch what they want, when they want it, but that will be the norm with television over time. We’re getting a head start”. Fine, but about when that is the norm, what is the strategy for differentiation then? Netflix have made some lofty, daring, innovative moves here, exploiting consumer trends and noticing a gap in the competitive environment. But they will need firm foundations to support this move into an adjacent business area, of which they know relatively little, in the years to come. As President Bartlet of West Wing was often heard to say, “What’s next?”.
What a fantastic ad from Channel 4 advertising their showcasing of the Paralympic Games, beginning soon. Meanwhile, what of the Olympics? Though there have been tales of Tube and travel chaos, Zeitgeist has not personally experienced problems with public transport, either for commuting or for travelling to the Games themselves. And while our mayor may have been left dangling like a pinata the other day, he certainly seems not to have left London in the lurch in its preparedness for the Games.
LOCOG, however, have had to face two severe lines of questioning since the Games opened last Friday. The first, which became immediately apparent to anyone watching the first few days of events, was that thousands of seats were unoccupied, including for events LOCOG had deemed sold out. The fault, it seemed, lay mainly with the Olympic Family, who weren’t turning up to events. Seb Coe tried to shrug off the incident, saying it was normal for the few first events of an Olympic Games. It must be particularly galling for him though after the same thing happened in the 2008 Games in Beijing and he pledged to avoid such an occurrence in London. It is unfortunate then for all concerned then that, despite releasing more tickets, the problem is still not resolved as of today.
Moreover, this brings us to the second big problem. The selling of tickets. The whole balloting system originally set up was pretty arcane and inefficient to begin with. But now with tickets being released on a rolling basis throughout the day, the chaos is all the more apparent. Yesterday, eConsultancy published an excellent article with a blow-by-blow account of just why “the Olympic ticketing website is so bad”. Worst, for Zeitgeist, was firstly not having a mobile version / mobile-optimised site. Secondly it was not having anything informing users of when certain tickets became available. Thankfully, as in any well-functioning democratic society, where there is a market failure, substitute products or competitors will come in to correct the situation. Such was the case at the weekend, when the completely unofficial @2012TicketAlert account was launched on Twitter, which used automated tweets to alert followers when any Olympic tickets became available. It was a fantastic idea, and seemed much in keeping with the ‘hack’ trend we see nowadays, when companies like Microsoft and Transport for London open up their APIs for users to develop their own programs. Such examples clearly had not occurred to LOCOG though, and earlier this evening, after amassing over 8,000 followers, LOCOG denied the @2012TicketAlert account further access. As the administrator of the account, Adam, wrote,
It seems a poor PR move on LOCOG’s part, and more importantly a poor operational move because it makes it that much harder again to check for newly available tickets. Taking into account the immense budget that must have been allocated to the ticketing website, the result is severely lacking, and many thousands of people have been put off the Olympic experience because of it. Ticketmaster, which has branding on the website, has also come under fire. These acts, as we predicted in an earlier article, may well be the undoing of those involved, for, once lost, a good reputation is hard to recover.
Dost thou know what reputation is?
I ’ll tell thee,—to small purpose, since the instruction
Comes now too late.
Upon a time Reputation, Love, and Death,
Would travel o’er the world; and it was concluded
That they should part, and take three several ways.
Death told them, they should find him in great battles,
Or cities plagu’d with plagues: Love gives them counsel
To inquire for him ’mongst unambitious shepherds,
Where dowries were not talk’d of, and sometimes
’Mongst quiet kindred that had nothing left
By their dead parents: “Stay,’ quoth Reputation,
‘Do not forsake me; for it is my nature,
If once I part from any man I meet,
I am never found again.’
- Duchess of Malfi, III, ii
Zeitgeist went to see Duchess of Malfi at the Old Vic last month, a brilliant production, and was reminded of this fantastic quotation when thinking of the upcoming Olympic Games soon to descend on London. Though arguably less ephemeral than the brand of today’s salubrious celebrities – written about recently in Vanity Fair – the Games can hardly be said to provide any quantifiable burgeoning of brand to host countries of the past (except perhaps for Barcelona). As The Economist adroitly put it the other week, “When asked why the United States is a fine place, few would instinctively mention its hosting of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.”
Are Britain’s current economic woes related to anything that might be solved by hosting an Olympics? Probably not. Will the Games, much like the bloody affairs of ancient Rome, serve to please and distract the hordes? More likely. The Games themselves will have to be good enough to overcome the pre-event controversies of massive over-spending, Zil lanes, anti-missile protests and Olympic torches on eBay. Otherwise, as the above quotation describes, the reputation of many will be lost forever.
While the rest of the world quickly comes to grips with the passing of Kim Jong-Il, master of North Korea, Zeitgeist is still pausing for thought over the death of Christopher Hitchens, master of the painfully incisive, devastating epithet. Zeitgeist has had the pleasure of reading several of Hitchens’ essays over the years, mostly from Vanity Fair. Christopher Buckley, writing in The New Yorker, delivered an excellent obituary on the man. As well as managing to anger pretty much anyone, no matter what their political or religious creed, Hitchens also had some thoughts on his own oeuvre. Writing more than ten years ago in his book No one left to lie to, Hitchens wrote of Drudge (of Drudge Report infamy),
“Drudge… openly says that he’ll print anything and let the customers decide if it’s kosher. This form of pretend ‘consumer sovereignty’ is fraudulent in the same way its analogues are. (It means, for one thing, you have no right to claim you were correct, or truthful, or brave. All you did was pass it on, like a leaker or some other kind of conduit. The death of any intelligent or principled journalism is foreshadowed by such promiscuity).”
Something for anyone who writes a blog to bear in mind. It certainly points to a larger trend, which, ten years on, is still a problem for those writing online, that of a lack of regulation. Not that any such regulation has prevented widespread abuse of power in ‘legitimate’ journalism, either. The problem with tougher rules and sanctions – ex ante or ex post – is the worry that such pressure will negatively impact on the quality of stories journalists deliver. It was the press, after all, who broke the story of the phone-hacking scandals. The dilemma will not be an easy one to solve, especially at a time when most newspapers continue to experience financial losses and a resultant brain drain of staff to more stable and lucrative lines of work. The loss of luminaries like Christopher Hitchens will not help matters.
As with every summer, the tennis season kicks into high gear with the French Open (aka Roland Garros) in Paris in May, and the Championships at the All England Club (aka Wimbledon) just two weeks later. Brand Republic today published their list of the 10 Best Tennis ads. The sport’s popularity pales in comparison to other pursuits in the UK, and questions always abound at this time of the year as to the country’s woeful showing at the majors. It’s an especially sore point when one looks at recent successes in golf.
Demand for tickets however at the four annual Grand Slams has never been higher. Getting a seat at such events then is a tough ask. Recently, the French Open began making tickets available online for direct purchase. This included being able to select specific days, courts and seats. Of course, having such an easy route meant that there were one or two people who had the same idea as Zeitgeist. Even accessing the website on the stroke of the hour the tickets became available put him behind 3,560 other eager tennis fans (see picture at end of article). Prima facie then this democratisation of ticket availability – rather than having a lottery and corporate hoardings – is a good thing. From a practical perspective however, does it make sense to do it this way? Can or should there be priorities given, based not just on how much people are willing to pay for tickets? Why not give those who actually play the sport more of a priority, or using Foursquare, see how many other tennis tournaments people have attended and judge their passion for tennis based on that. Can they have ticket giveaways to those who “like” Nadal, Federer, etc. on Facebook? It’s a thorny issue; perhaps the route the French Open has taken is the least worst option.
All the slams provide diverting iPhone apps too. However, if you’re going to the effort of providing a service, better make sure it works. Zeitgeist was presented with the below image on their phone while sitting on Court 1 at Wimbledon on Monday, June 20th.
Why dominance means nothing if you stop delivering.
Zeitgeist reported recently on the number of high street names issuing profits warnings after an icy December kept shoppers away from their tills.
The encroachment from online retailers onto traditional bricks and mortar stores is only going to increase as once dominant names slowly diminish into also rans, punished by their failure to adapt to progress.
While such a destiny is unfortunate for a lumbering organisation with a physical and costly infrastructure to maintain, for what should be a cutting edge technology company it is unforgivable.
A mere ten years ago, Finnish communications company Nokia dominated the mobile phone market. This rather quaint BBC story from from a decade ago reports that ‘Nokia has strengthened its grip on the world’s mobile phone handset market’ and that ‘for the first time, Nokia has a market share more than double that of its nearest competitor’.
The report concludes with a prediction from Forrester who anticipated that ‘five dominant players would control Europe’s networks by 2015′.
While that prediction may come true, it is questionable whether any of the dominant manufacturers from yesteryear will be among them.
This week’s ‘leaked’ memo from Nokia’s CEO Stephen Elop claimed that the company was ‘standing on a burning platform’ and surrounded by a ‘blazing fire’.
This is not a pleasant place to be. As mobile phones became smartphones an ever increasing importance was placed upon a phones operating system, both in terms of functionality and usability.
Just as the old high street stores threw up websites that weren’t quite as good as the dedicated online retailers Nokia produced Symbian, an operating system that failed to impress anywhere near as much as the ones you’d find on an Apple, Blackberry or Android phone.
Elop’s acknowledgement of the problem has opened the door for a radical change in strategy to try and rescue the problem.
Rumours abound of a partnership with an existing platform.
“It could either be a very bad marriage or a marriage of two players that have not been very effective alone.” commented Magnus Rehle of Greenwich Consulting.
The two likely candidates are Android, which would essentially relegate Nokia to a manufacturer in competition with other Android handset makers, or Microsoft who have also struggled to ship as many copies of their Window Phone 7 operating system as had been hoped.
The former would be a rather bitter pill for a once dominant giant.
The latter, and arguably preferable option, would bring together two massive organisations who have struggled to assert their dominance in the category.
An announcement is imminent, though as Hakim Kriout of Grigsby & Associates points out ‘Very few companies regain their leadership once they’ve lost it.’
Whichever route Nokia go down the lesson is there for brands in every category.
It is infinitely preferable to stay top of the pile than to have to climb back up after a fall.
Regardless of your current dominance, if you fail to keep up with what people want and expect from you, someone else will deliver it and take your crown before you’ve admitted there is a problem. Brands must avoid the complacency that dominance can bring.
If brands assumed that they were surrounded by crocodiles and stayed alert to change and ready to react, they’d be much more likely to avoid getting trapped by ‘blazing fires’.
Contention, Controversy and Criticism, the three Cs that no brand wants to hear (unless they’ve intentionally brought it upon themselves in an incredibly well-orchestrated way). The Gap recently tried this, in an effort that Brandchannel called a “Gapocalypse”, i.e. not well-orchestrated. Mea culpas followed hard upon.
Last month, the Daily Mail reported that Dior was being similarly torn apart; “slammed” for its apparently racist imagery. The images in question, shot by Quentin Shih as part of the ‘Shanghai Dreamers’ campaign commissioned for the new store opening in the eponymous city, show a woman draped in Dior finery, surrounded by Chinese people who all look exactly alike. The campaign has been called racist, but Mr. Shih says, “I wanted to show the power of Chinese people standing together and a kind of socialism in Chinese history (only in Chinese history not China now)… The Chinese models are not people. They are symbols of Chinese history between the 1960s and 1980s.” According to the article, The Guardian’s Jenny Zhang wrote “[They] should have sent Chinese models for Shih to shoot, and should understand that the modern Chinese Dior customer will not recognise herself or himself in these photographs.” Dior could be forgiven though for playing on the well-known admiration that the Chinese have for luxury, exotic Western brands. Actress Marion Cotillard was similarly used in an international campaign for Dior recently, highlighting China’s rising prominence.
The ‘Shanghai Dreamers’ photos, intentionally glazed to give the appearance of those family photos from bygone days, remind Zeitgeist of old school photos… just not theirs. As always, your thoughts and raging tirades are always welcome on what you think of this campaign, and how well it treads the line of being at the cutting edge – which is what haute couture fashion is all about; pushing boundaries – while maintaining cultural sensitivity.