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You may or may not be aware that Arts Council England (ACE) in conjunction with the BBC launched an "on demand" service for the arts called 'The Space' on May 1st. The service will run for just six months and is designed to showcase new ways of commissioning "digital" media for the arts, or at least that's what the press release says.
For the purposes of this article we shall skip past the fact that anybody, anywhere has been able to put high quality audio and video media online for years and the only thing notable about The Space is it took them this long to do it and move on.
There are four dance projects funded to produce work directly for The Space. One has already happened, 'The Breakin' Convention' from Sadlers Wells, the others are a dance film version of 'The Rodin Project' by Russell Maliphant, 'Spill' from the Birmingham NDA DanceXchange and 'Come Dance With Me' (stop laughing at the back) from the Ipswich based NDA Dance East.
We're Breakin' Up!
The Breakin' Convention was broadcast live for seven hours (that's not a typo) starting from 4pm on May 7th. Following more than two hours of pre-show interviews the actual show ran for more than three hours, putting some of the oldest classics to shame in terms of sheer endurance.
Video quality was surprisingly good however and was very watchable, or at least it would have been if not for the antics of the vision mixer/producer who was apparently getting paid by the cut and kept switching the camera angle so often it made your head hurt.
We were also introduced to our old friend "hand held camera in the wings", the goto camera angle of the permanently inept.
Still, the idea was to boost the in theatre audience beyond the 1,400 capacity of Sadler's Wells in London. Here in TheLab™ we didn't watch the whole thing but at no point when we were watching did the "live" viewer numbers ever go above 280. The cumulative number, for the whole day, didn't get above 3,000. Eventually the number displaying the live audience was turned off, make of that what you will.
Curiously, press officers from both ACE and Sadler's Wells claimed they were unaware of the actual viewing numbers. Considering the whole point of the The Space is to boost audience numbers for the arts you would think such statistics would be at the very top of their press briefing sheet.
Apart from the "live" aspect of the show the other aim is to create lots of small highlight packages for The Space website and provide video material for the dance companies taking part in the show.
As far as budgets were concerned both press officers decided to play a game of tag, referring us to each other to answer questions. The cost of filming this show and showing it to a few hundred additional people? Just £53,000!
Neither organisation would comment about the fact that £53,000 is more money than most dance companies spend actually touring around the UK to perform in front of actual people.
Currently The International Dance Festival Birmingham is up and running in, well, it's in Birmingham isn't it. One performance at the festival is 'Spill' a dance work created by Australian Shaun Parker.
The work itself takes place inside real playgrounds around the West-Midlands. For The Space, DanceXchange will be making ten, three minute videos about the project, when we asked them why ten short episodes they responded;
"The aim is to create bite-size viewing experiences suitable for online use, exploring different aspects of a brand new commission made for parks and playgrounds. (It isn't a serialised TV show)"
Suggesting that only "bite-size" pieces of video are suitable for the web is a very old and misleading position to take. It's also a curious position considering one of the partner organisations for the The Space is the BBC who run the very popular iPlayer service.
None of the videos on iPlayer are three minutes long. In fact people all over the world have been able to watch entire feature films and "serialised" television shows for years all on the internet.
The cost of each of these three minute episodes is just shy of £7,000. DanceXchange stated that the high cost was due to the;
"partnership with a highly experienced professional production company, Maverick TV. The budget was approved by ACE/BBC at the outset, and includes artist time, expenses and royalty fees, and production staff, technical equipment and editing time."
Maverick TV, the "highly experienced, professional production company" usually makes disposable television programmes for Channel4. Don't believe us, well here's a programme description for their current show 'Embarrassing Bodies'
"While Dr Dawn sets up a poo bar in Thailand, Dr James infects himself with hookworm parasites; Dr Christian jets to Ibiza to give the party crowd advice on safe sex, and Dr Pixie travels to the UK's favourite holiday spots with the EB mobile clinic."
We don't know what's worse, that people make a show like that or that people watch a show like that. 'Justified' it 'aint.
The common refrain for the press flacks about The Space is "building digital capacity". That claim however is utterly ridiculous because they're not "building" anything at all. The Space will be taken offline in six months. From there the content, whatever scraps are left, will be fragmented across multiple websites and YouTube channels if it makes it online at all.
Digital capacity already exists on the internet and has done for years. Flickr, Vimeo et-al provide high quality services, for very low cost. You can create a website and serve video, audio and images from these platforms, you don't actually have to build any capacity at all.
If the collective brain trust of ACE and the BBC wanted to build "capacity" they would have set up a dedicated production company that did nothing but produce media content for dance, theatre, music, etc. This work would either be for free or at a cost more in keeping with what arts organisations can usually afford. The arts organisations that don't have ACE in their back pocket that is.
You could of course argue that third party services can shut down or go out of business and you would have to start all over again. This is true, but we'll wager that they will all outlast The Space.
The only hurdle is the cost of producing the material.
If a dance company or organisation approached us and asked for a three minute film of their project and we told them it would cost £7,000 they would laugh so hard hospital treatment would be required.
Also, do you really think we could do what we do at Article19, filming live performances and publishing them online if it actually did cost £53,000 to film a show? Even if we sent six operators to each show (which is four more than you really need if you're being extravagant) we couldn't spend that much money.
The live streaming portion of the 'Breakin' Convention' was not the most expensive part of the project. Despite being partnered with the BBC the live stream was handled by UStream, a live streaming service available to anybody. Their most expensive package costs $999 (US) for one month, that's just over £615 (GBP).
In the video and film production business people can pretty much charge you whatever they want, or whatever they can get away with. You want Technocranes, Steadicams, food trucks, lights, producers, visual fx and more? Fine, just pony up the cash and you can have it all. It probably won't make your production look any better but it will certainly be more effective at indulging the egos of the people at ACE towers and the BBC.
If it's expensive, it must be good, right?
There is also no other way to explain the arrogance of a 7 hour long live broadcast from just one show. As mentioned earlier, £53,000 is more money than most dance companies spend on actual touring.
Here in TheLab™ we're all for getting more stuff about dance online but doing it this way is completely unsustainable and down right crazy.
Ridiculous sums of money are being spent in service not of dance or the arts but individual projects and personal indulgences. The only people benefitting here are video production companies.
As a comparison. Article19 was given £4,500 to support the production of our video features. We created 27 video features of 26 dance companies from 7 different countries for a total of 56 videos or 9 hours of published material.
That's more material than these projects combined at a cost of more than £250,000.
Make of that what you will but ACE never again gets to use the terms "value for money" or "cost effective" because clearly, they haven't got a clue.
At the time of publication nobody from Dance East or Russell Maliphant was available to comment.
'Spill' debuts on The Space in July.