Launching an art on a virtual stage

The width of an average laptop computer screen is close to 12 inches. The Metropolitan Opera’s stage is 57 feet wide. The difference is huge, but the people behind are betting $10 million that audiences won’t mind downsizing their performing arts experience in exchange for the convenience of instant access.

Classical TV is a for-profit website that seeks to make vast libraries of filmed opera, dance and classical concerts available on your computer -- sort of a for the arts. The streaming site had its soft launch four months ago and has gradually been building its catalog of video offerings, which includes 1,100 full-length performances from such prestigious organizations as the Met, the Salzburg Festival, the Paris Opera Ballet and more. The site usually features about 20% of its total content at any given time.

“Our audience is niche, but it’s a big niche,” said Chris Hunt, the founder and chief executive officer of the company. “We don’t believe in the ballet-and-brie myth. Classical audiences are all ages and eager to go online.”

Hunt, 54, is a British television producer who created performing-arts broadcasts at ITV’s “South Bank Show.” Over the years he has built connections throughout the classical world, which has helped him secure the content partnerships that make Classical TV possible.

The company, which employs about a dozen people and is based out of Bristol, England, doesn’t create any original video content. Instead, it licenses existing videos from performing-arts companies around the world. The Met and other partners take a revenue share and sometimes are paid a certain amount in advance on the revenue so they are guaranteed a minimum amount.


A spokesman for the Met said that only its high-definition transmissions have been licensed to Classical TV and that their deal is non-exclusive. The opera company declined to discuss the financial details of the arrangement.

The majority of the videos on Classical TV are free for users to watch, but the site also offers premium content at prices similar to cable video-on-demand and pay-per-view, generally ranging from $4.99 to $9.99 per video for a 72-hour period.

Upcoming pay-per-view streams include “Eugene Onegin” from the Bolshoi Opera, “Giselle” from the Dutch National Ballet and “Thais” from the Met, starring Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampson.

The most popular streams in recent weeks have been Anthony Minghella’s production of “Madama Butterfly” by Puccini; the opening concert of the 2009 Salzburg Festival; and a performance by pianist Friedrich Gulda of works by Mozart.

Advertising is crucial to the site, and the company has signed on two sponsors -- TD Ameritrade and Estee Lauder -- whose commercials precede the free videos. But launching a site at a time when advertising dollars are scarce has proved especially challenging for the company.

“The hardest part right now is that the advertising market is down,” said Pam Mayer, senior vice president at Classical TV. “We’re finding advertisers that are willing to pay to reach educated consumers who want to spend money, but the ad market is soft, and that has been a real challenge.”

Classical TV is being funded by a silent partner in the U.S. -- a hedge fund that has helped the company raise the nearly $10 million it needed to launch this year.

Profitability is still a long way off, but Classical TV estimates it could see break-even business in 18 months.

The company declined to reveal exact viewer statistics, but it said that its audience is growing at a rate of more than 20% a month. The majority of its viewers are in the United States and Europe, but it is seeing robust growth in Asia as well.

Classical TV has few direct competitors. Such sites as provide audio but not video; the arts cable station Ovation features only a limited video selection on its website. Companies such as the Met and the Berlin Philharmonic already stream their own content, but few sites aggregate video from a wide range of sources.

The market potential for Classical TV is difficult to measure. In the United States, close to 31.6 million adults attended a classical or jazz concert in 2008, according to figures published by the National Endowment for the Arts. The same study showed that approximately 30% of adults who used the Internet in 2008 consumed music, theater or dance performances at least once a week.

The NEA said that audiences for live classical and jazz concerts have fallen by double digits since 1982, more than any other art form.

“The Internet is now the place where people go to discover and recommend music. It’s the primary way that people share their discoveries with friends,” said Jesse Rosen, the president and chief executive of the League of American Orchestras.

Classical TV doesn’t have tools for social networking, but it is trying to build a loyal community through original criticism and editorial content on its site.

It is also trying to widen its appeal by featuring a limited selection of filmed Broadway productions and pop performances. The company has also made deals with portal sites like Hulu and has created its own YouTube channel to find new viewers.

“I’ve been pleased with the variety of content on the site, but there are some problems,” said Stephen Smoliar, a retired technology specialist and classical music fan who lives in San Francisco. He said that certain videos divided into chapters don’t always advance to the next section automatically. The site also doesn’t allow viewers to select individual pieces from within a concert, like the Berlin Philharmonic’s site does.

“But overall, I’ve been extremely happy with it,” said Smoliar, who also writes freelance music criticism for various websites.

One of the biggest hurdles facing Classical TV is getting people to watch videos that can be three or four hours long on their computers. The Met’s production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” starring soprano Deborah Voigt, clocks in at over four hours while many operas easily surpass three hour.

“I’ve watched ‘Tristan’ on the site, and I watched it one act per day over a few days,” said Stephen Greco, editorial director for the site.

“Sometimes I’ll put an opera on in one browser while I’m working in another application. We fully expect people to multitask as they watch. It’s become part of the experience of consuming classical music online.”