Entertainment is information. Actors, directors, singers, and dancers produce it. Audiences consume it. Theaters distribute it. That's the crude analysis, anyway.
Ancient Greek and Roman theaters were compact, elegant distribution diagrams. Since an unaided actor's voice cannot carry very far, spectators were packed in tight circles around the point of production. And, since unobstructed lines of sight were essential, these circles were raked. The audience could see and hear the actors, the actors could see and hear the audience, and the whole system was wrapped up into a neat architectural package.
Andrea Palladio's late-sixteenth-century Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza (among others of around the same time) brought the circles of seats in under a weather-tight roof and got very sophisticated about the sightlines. Two centuries later, in Giuseppe Piermarini's design for La Scala in Milan, the seats were augmented (as had become customary in Europe) by vertically stacked circles of private boxes-a lot of little drawing rooms with the fourth walls removed, as Proust shrewdly described them. 15
Broadcast media (radio and television) enlarged the spectator circles to encompass entire communities and shattered the once-unified audience space into thousands of scattered armchairs, couches, car seats, boom-box emplacements, and ear-to-ear spans of headphones. Proust's drawing rooms now spun out of their fixed orbits; recall how the film American Graffiti evoked a soft theater centered on the local radio tower-a radiation field emanating from Wolfman Jack, engulfing the ranch-house living rooms and cruising automobiles of a 1950s California town. Transmission towers replaced stage towers, and invisible circles of pulsing electromagnetic waves supplanted static arcs of spectator seating. Since audiences grew huge, broadcast studios became (as Frankfurt School commentators observed, with vivid anxiety about the consequences) favored platforms for big-time manipulators of public opinion-advertisers, demagogues, talk-show hosts, and televangelists. 16
Electronic enlargement of the spectator circles had an additional important consequence; since performers could no longer hear their far-flung audiences laughing, groaning, muttering, hissing, heckling, cheering, and clapping, the flow of information became almost entirely unidirectional. The traditional asymmetry of theatrical performance was vastly exaggerated. Direct engagement of performers and audiences disappeared, to be replaced partially and unsatisfactorily (if at all) by expedients such as studio audiences, telephone call-ins, and Nielsen boxes.
But switched, broadband, two-way cable networks of the kind that were under development by the early 1990s-sophisticated bit-distribution utilities, much like the water, gas, sewage, and electrical systems which have become so fundamental to modern cities-transform this condition. Most obviously, they can be hooked up to large video servers that allow subscribers interactively to select videos from extensive menus, play them whenever they want, and operate a "virtual VCR" to control viewing conditions. It's "video on demand," as its promoters have dubbed it.
But the traditionally structured video does not have to be the unit that is retrieved and played; finer-grained interactions with hypermedia entertainment productions also become possible. Early versions of these sorts of productions first became popular in the personal computer era, and initially were distributed on floppy disk or CD; in the early 1990s there was an initial flurry of interest in branching hypertext novels with multithreaded narrative structures that could be followed in many different ways, and there were a few experiments with larger-scale hypertext fictions on the Internet. There was also some experimentation with "branching" movies in specially equipped theaters. As switched broadband networks bring sufficient bandwidth into living rooms to allow interactive video, and as home audiences become large enough to justify expensive productions, interactive productions seem destined to become the norm rather than the exception.
Live performances-broadcast, narrowcast, or point-to-pointcan also become interactive. You might, for example, have a very literal kind of virtual auditorium in which the display screen functions as a stage and your remote has buttons for sending back applause and other codified responses. If you receive three-dimensional models of a sporting event rather than a stream of two-dimensional video images, you could take control of some directorial functions by selecting viewpoints and operating a virtual camera. It surely will not be very long before there are two-way video equivalents of talk radio. And, no doubt, there will be virtual 47th Streets and "combat zones" to provide an endless variety of private sexual performances on demand; as 900 numbers, Minitel, and X-rated chat rooms have amply demonstrated, skilled performers can easily overcome bandwidth and interface limitations.
Competitive games will be reinvented for virtual arenas. The usual way to set up a game has been to bring small numbers of competitors together in precisely marked physical places-over chessboards, on tennis courts, basketball courts, or football fields-while spectators watch from the sidelines. In 1993 the hack-and-slash hit Doom effectively exploited the idea of putting networked participants together in virtual places to battle software monsters and to duel with each other. And by 1994 the videogame pioneer Nolan Bushnell was speculating about the possibility of network-supported, intercity competitive games involving tens of thousands of participants on each team. 17
Carried to their logical conclusion, these reconfigurations and transformations completely rip apart the traditional architectural relationship between stage and auditorium, performers and audience. The great house of the theater condenses into an electronic box with a screen and a video camera. When you want to be a spectator, the bezel of the screen becomes your proscenium-framer of the action. When you want to become an actor, the camera provides access to an audience and the entire network is potentially your auditorium. And when you want to be a game participant, the network allows you to meet teammates and opponents on virtual turf.
Not only has the old idea of concentrated, physically coherent theatrical or competition space been subverted and eroded, so has that of performance time. Early "live" radio and television shows carefully preserved the theatrical convention of definite performance time, but programmers soon learned tricks of repeating and time-shifting recorded performances and of mixing live and recorded material. With the development of networked interactive video, the show goes on anytime anybody wants it to.
All this reshapes the rules of production and distribution. Under traditional arrangements, the cost of getting to an audience tends to be high; a show has to fill expensive theater seats or attract sufficient advertising to pay for production costs and air time. So the entertainment industry has increasingly become a game for very big players who compete for mass audiences. But as high-bandwidth networks proliferate, and as network navigation software grows in sophistication, the costs of reaching and aggregating audiences should diminish sharply. There will be opportunities to produce and distribute low-budget entertainment for very small audiences and to identify and reach scattered audiences with the most specialized of interests and tastes. The infobahn may become a vast, global Broadway lined with thousands of virtual theaters.
So the social superglue of necessary proximity between performers and audience is losing its old stickiness, and the traditional architectural types and social conventions (going to the theater, cheering for your local team in the ballpark) that we associate with performance are coming unstuck. Speech, music, scenes, and text can now be transmuted into bits and entered into the network almost anywhere. These bits can be decoded to create a performance wherever and whenever a spectator chooses to plug in. Established distinctions between producers and consumers of entertainment (reified by the forms of theater and stadium construction) are breaking down. Soon, all the world will be an electronic stage.