Simulcast: the word is in the media


The New York Times wrote yesterday that “the Metropolitan Opera announced that it was canceling plans to simulcast John Adams’s “The Death of Klinghoffer” this fall to cinemas around the world.” The Guardian similarly reported that “New York’s Metropolitan Opera have cancelled an international simulcast of John Adams’ opera The Death of Klinghoffer due to ‘an outpouring of concern’ that it ‘might be used to fan global anti-semitism’.” (We won’t dwell on the newspaper’s strange plural conjugation “the Met have cancelled” — as if the opera company were a football team, or on its denial of a possessive s to the composer’s name, or on its dubious use of “due to”; all that can be left for another discussion or two.)

Glossophilia’s outpouring of concern is to do with the word simulcast, which has become ubiquitous as more and more live performances — theatrical, musical, operatic, even ecclesiastical — are being beamed over the airwaves and into cinemas, living rooms and public spaces around the world. But what does simulcast actually mean, and how does it distinguish itself from the older word broadcast?

The answer depends on what side of the Atlantic you’re on.

First, let’s take the more straightforward broadcast: Oxford Dictionaries defines the verb (and its related noun) as “to transmit (a programme or some information) by radio or television”. The word dates back to 1767, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, as an adjective referring to the spreading of seed, from broad (adj.) + the past participle of cast (v.). Its figurative use is recorded from 1785, and the modern media use began with radio in 1922, as an adjective and noun. As a verb, it is recorded from 1813 in an agricultural sense, 1829 in a figurative sense, and from 1921 referring to radio.

Now let’s look at the younger and more media-hip simulcast  — a portmanteau dating back to the 1940s that blends simultaneous and broadcast, taking us beyond seed-sowing and into a more complex world of technology and semantics. According to Oxford Dictionaries, it means “a simultaneous transmission of the same program on radio and television, or on two or more channels, eg. a Radio1/BBC2 simulcast”. Carried by more than one media channel, it differs from a broadcast not in its numerical or geographical reach, but by the number of vehicles that transport the light and sound waves across lawns and oceans.

But the North American definition is different: there the noun simulcast (and its related verb) refers to “a live transmission of a public celebration or sports event, eg. simulcasts of live races.”

It’s debatable whether the Klinghoffer simulcast-that-won’t-be should really have been labelled as such by either of the distinguished newspapers quoted above — whether they were American or British. Since it was to be transmitted by the Met’s own Live in HD series — ie. just one medium — the performance wasn’t technically going to be simulcast, as The Guardian reported. The New York Times is arguably even further off base, if you go by Oxford Dictionaries’ American definition, since the opera couldn’t be described as either a public celebration or a sports event by any stretch of the imagination. (The Met itself describes these events as either “performance transmissions” or simply “broadcasts”.)

But like all the Met’s Live in HD broadcasts, this transmission was set to reach millions of eyes and ears around the world — simultaneously. So if there were ever a case for stretching or changing the definition of the simulcast, many might argue that this is it.