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Theatre Works' Future is Online

L.A. organization has a unique treasury of recorded productions. The challenge is to use new technology to open new markets and maximize sales.

May 17, 2000|KAREN E. KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

L.A. Theatre Works would seem to be in an enviable position: The nonprofit corporation stakes a claim as the only organization that regularly records spoken-word plays in the United States.

Its unique library of more than 250 contemporary and classical theater productions, most recorded live for broadcast on National Public Radio, have won myriad creative awards.

Add to that an ambitious schedule of producing 14 annual spoken-word productions at the Skirball Cultural Center, and anyone can understand why L.A. Theatre Works has an international reputation and collaborative relationships with the BBC in London, Voice of America and the Smithsonian Institution.

But when veteran Los Angeles business technology consultants Rohit Shukla and Jon Goodman took a look at the group's challenges, they concluded that new technology and potentially lucrative new markets are passing L.A. Theatre Works by.

"They are thinking about traditional radio and selling audiocassettes through a catalog, instead of thinking about all the other opportunities out there," Goodman said.

Goodman and Shukla reviewed producing director Susan Albert Loewenberg's concerns about the need to network the group's computers, add DSL Internet connections and upgrade its Web site--http://www.latheatreworks.com--to enable online sales of its audiocassettes.

Their frank response was that Loewenberg was asking for help for all the wrong reasons.

"Their internal computer issues are trivial," Shukla said. "They've got the requisite number of computers and their system just needs tweaking here and there. They can get their headquarters networked relatively easily. That's not a problem."

Instead, the consultants said L.A. Theatre Works should identify new-technology markets such as Internet radio and use them to expand the group's audience.

"They need to investigate and understand the new channels of distribution that are already coming online and know where their audience is going to migrate as a result," Shukla said. "Everything about the organization has to revolve around this new technology."

While the technology to integrate the Internet with television is still being developed commercially, Internet and radio convergence is already happening. L.A. Theatre Works needs to leverage its affiliations wisely with other organizations--like local NPR station KCRW--that are already attuned to the evolving marketplace, the consultants said.

Net, Satellite Radio Can Catch Ear of Millions

Internet radio can reach the 100 million global users of the Internet, Goodman noted. "This is an easy way for L.A. Theatre Works to find a market of maybe 500,000 people who are dying to have spoken-word productions going on in the background of their lives, instead of music," she said.

Goodman said L.A. Theatre Works also needs to take into account satellite radio technology, which will get a boost when many 2001 model cars come equipped with satellite radio capability.

L.A. Theatre Works' productions, featuring well-known actors such as John Lithgow, Marsha Mason and Ed Asner performing the works of playwrights such as David Mamet, Noel Coward, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and Arthur Miller, are already being recorded in DAT (digital audio tape) format. The next step is to stream them live over the group's Web site.

Digital recordings "could be re-purposed to various markets a thousand different ways--including by audiotape and CD and Internet radio and on satellite radio broadcasts," Goodman said.

The group would not have to maintain its own library under this scenario, or worry about the eventual quality decay of physical DATs and CDs.

"We definitely intend to follow their recommendation to capture new productions digitally and archive the old material into digital format and then rent space on a server and put all of [the plays] there. It will be much more flexible for us to do it that way," Loewenberg said.

Shukla and Goodman recommended that the costly process of digitizing the existing library might be achieved through a joint development deal with a distributor that wants to license L.A. Theatre Works' productions.

"L.A. Theatre Works would forgo an upfront fee for the rights until the cost of development is recouped, at which point royalty income would be forthcoming," the consultants wrote in their make-over report. "The subsequent cost of replication of the digitized product is minimal."

The first use of the repackaged digital content might be to market it to companies that prepare in-flight audio broadcasts for the airlines, Goodman said. One of these companies could be a candidate for negotiating the development deal that would allow for the group's material to be digitized.

Another logical market is licensing deals with the many companies that package radio programming and transmit it via satellite to outlets all over the world, Shukla said.

"If I can have CNN on in the background while I'm working on spreadsheets, why not a spoken-word play?" Shukla said.

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