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How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash, says Peter Bazalgette

In 2006, the Metropolitan Opera in New York began broadcasting high-definition performances of its operas to digital cinemas. Two years later, the Berlin Philharmonic started an online streaming concert hall service and on June 25, 2009, this digital revolution reached England when the National Theatre launched NT Live, putting theatre on to cinema screens across the country.

The effect of that inaugural transmission of Racine's Phèdre was remarkable. In a single night, it doubled the audience for the play's three-month live run. Five years on, a broadcast of the National's production of War Horse drew a cinema audience of 120,000, compared with the 1,024 seat capacity of the New London Theatre where the live show was being staged.

Live broadcasts are now the growth area in cinema audiences. It's no longer the exclusive territory of the performing arts: look at the success of the British Museum's live screening of its Pompeii exhibition. The exhibition was seen by more than 471,000 visitors over a six-month run: the live broadcast was shown in 281 venues, from Thurso to Penzance, and was seen by 53,885 cinema-goers including more than 13,600 school children.

The digital revolution is giving the public from across the country access to the arts that their taxes pay for. Look what's happening with the Arts Council Collection. This treasury of British art toured to audiences of more than a million in 2012, but digitally it's available on the Your Pictures portal, which is browsed by 430,000 people every month. And counting.

The Arts Council's mission is to make great art and culture available to everyone, so this is wonderful news for us as well as the public. We believe that we are seeing the emergence of a digital arts network that could potentially transform the way that we experience the arts, integrating them into our lives in many new ways. Of course, sceptics might question whether we are finding new audiences, or stealing old audiences for live events. We've not had any firm evidence around this, though there's been survey material suggesting that the two forms don't divide audiences. The National Theatre has played to packed houses while its regional broadcasts have now notched up an additional two million people.

In the digital world, where everything is replicable, live actually becomes more special. Going to the theatre is not only about watching the play – it's also about the occasion, the conversation and the environment, and the sense of being present at something unique. No broadcast production, however wonderful – and I've seen some brilliant ones – can give you the intimacy and edge of the theatrical occasion, which is not to say that a broadcast is inferior, just different. That's important to understand: it's a different way of experiencing the show. But broadcasts on the other hand, allow the audience sight-lines, close-ups, sound quality and an appreciation of production values that they couldn't enjoy from the back of the upper circle in a regional theatre.

Until now there's been no data about the effect that live broadcasts – and the National Theatre's in particular – have actually had on attendance at live events. Good news then, to see the publication of Nesta's report, which takes a look at the data surrounding NT Live and its effect on audiences for theatre across the country. The report looked at data from ticket transactions for 54 performing arts venues across England from early 2009, when National Theatre Live was launched, through to late 2013. And it concludes that the presence of National Theatre Live appears to have boosted local theatre attendance in neighbourhoods most exposed to the live broadcasting programme. The more of the good stuff you have, the more you want. The same happened to attendances at football matches when live transmissions started more than 25 years ago!

We need to ensure that these parallel worlds, the digital and the live, support each other. For example, a digital network could ensure that high-profile local productions are streamed to local audiences that can't get to see the live shows, either because of availability or affordability. And cinema broadcasts of flagship productions could carry adverts for local theatre productions.

I'm encouraged by the fact that this information was extracted from big data collected through the Audience Finder national database, a programme funded by the Arts Council. If the arts are to expand their reach and make the most of opportunities to improve revenue, we'll have to learn how to use big data. Using it properly means asking it useful questions. The Arts Council has a digital strategy to increase reach and digital impact is something we need to know about.

Ultimately big data can help drive strategy, so that our decisions become more evidence-based rather than theoretical. What could we learn from Nesta's report in the long term? It's early days, but my guess is that it tells us that the more we promote our arts content digitally, the more we will drive audiences to the live events. That the digital world and the live world are potentially two halves of the same sphere – two parts of an immersive arts environment. And roll on the digital millennium in which we're going to invent so many new and exciting ways in which to distribute arts and culture. We've only just begun.

The full Nesta report on the impact of live screening on theatre attendance is at nesta.org.uk/NTliveregional; Sir Peter Bazalgette is chair of Arts Council England