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Research finds that NT Live has 'no negative impact' on regional theatregoing

A 'big data' survey carried out by Nesta is the first to examine the effect of live cinema broadcasts

Complementing the live experience? Cameramen prepare to film a production at the National
© Simon Annand

New research has shown that live cinema broadcasts such as those streamed by the National Theatre have "no negative impact" on theatre attendances outside London.

Some in the theatre industry - including playwright Alan Ayckbourn - have cautioned that by screening work from leading theatres such as the National and RSC, local audiences will be less inclined to attend live performances.

Ayckbourn, whose play A Small Family Business was recently shown through NT Live, told the BBC recently: "One's fear, which may be groundless, is that eventually we and our equivalent theatres will stop doing plays and they'll all be streamed live from these centres of excellence."

But a 'big data' survey by Nesta, looking at box office data from 54 performing arts organisations, has found no negative impact on box office figures.

According to Nesta: "These records represent 44 million tickets and span a period from early 2009 through to late 2013, which coincides with the introduction and expansion of National Theatre Live.

"After cleaning the data and coding each performance as either theatre or non-theatre, we end up with around 12 million records, of which 32% are for theatre performances."

On average, areas in England within a 3km radius of a cinema showing National Theatre Live saw a 5% increase in local theatregoing over the next 12 months, compared with otherwise similar areas that were not within this radius.

But this figure is driven predominantly by venues in London, which saw a 6.4% increase in local theatre attendance following a National Theatre Live screening.

Outside of London there is "no significant impact either way".

'Valuable complement to the live experience'

Nesta's Hasan Bakhshi commented: "Far from cannibalising theatre audiences our findings suggest that NT Live has on average grown audiences for local theatre in London and has had a neutral impact regionally. Cinema-goers at NT Live productions are a captive audience for theatres - regional venues should consider how they can convert these into greater ticket sales."

The National's director of digital David Sabel added: "We believe that the more great drama people are able to see, the more they are likely to want to go to the theatre; so it's great to see that Nesta's latest research confirms that live broadcasts are a valuable complement to the live theatre experience."

Nesta concludes:

First, there is no evidence in any of our models that the National Theatre Live screenings have on average harmed attendances at local theatre, at least in our sample of venues.

Second, there is evidence of a boost in theatre attendances in London for populations near cinemas participating in National Theatre Live.

Third, that the impact on non-theatre performances is almost as strong is puzzling and requires further research.

Fourth, our research illustrates the value of public agencies collating and making available to researchers big data sets in the arts (open data), just as is the case in other areas.

For more information on the survey, which was conducted in partnership with The Audience Agency's Audience Finder visit Nesta.org.uk

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