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No 'Limits' for PBS' Beloved Music Show

While most 38-year-olds are showing some gray around the temples, Austin City Limits, the PBS performance show produced by KLRU Austin, is hitting its new season with an extra spring in its step. Evolving from a “little old Austin, Texas, music show,” according to executive producer Terry Lickona, when it debuted in 1974, Austin City Limits begins season 38 in October with a boldface name act its producers have sought for years, a newish venue and plans to extend the brand well beyond its PBS base.

“It’s a balancing act—how to maintain what we do with PBS and stay true to what we do with Austin City Limits,” says Tom Gimbel, general manager of ACL, “and how to take our archival shows and make them available to more people in more ways.”

The music television landscape has changed dramatically since Willie Nelson performed in episode one of ACL in 1974. The inception of cable television of course gave viewers MTV and VH1, while broadband video has turned every user into a VJ.

Yet ACL, despite funding challenges over the years, has survived. One ingredient in the not-so-secret sauce is its home market: Offbeat, eclectic and home to one of the country’s great live music scenes, Austin too has thrived. The city’s annual South by Southwest festival has emerged as a must-attend for the arts and technology intelligentsia.

Bands typically get a meager $500 performance fee to play ACL, but that’s clearly not the motivation for season 38 big-name acts such as Jack White and Tim McGraw. “The artists are in a good mood when they’re here,” says Lickona. “It’s a great stop on the road.”

The new season kicks off Oct. 6 with Radiohead, the artsy English group that is a rare get for a TV booker. Lickona calls it “a dream come true. It’s something we persistently and patiently waited for for about 15 years.”

Last season, tapings moved from KLRU Studio 6A to ACL Live at the Moody Theater, located on, fittingly, Willie Nelson Boulevard in downtown Austin. The venue holds about 2,000 for tapings; Studio 6A sat around 300.

Last year also saw ACL get its own general manager, as Gimbel, a former executive at Arista Records, came on board. “As the show has grown over the years, it got to the point where it made sense to have someone doing it full-time,” says Gimbel.

While the lineup is eclectic, ACL plays in Middle America. WTVP Peoria does not subscribe to Nielsen ratings, but Linda Miller, vice president of programming, says she heard from scores of upset viewers when the station tried moving ACL from 10 to 11 p.m. on Saturdays. Miller notes the show’s consistent quality and ability to bring cutting-edge bands to viewers who otherwise may not be hip to them. “It’s one of the strongest programs we’ve had,” she says. “They do a really great job with the music scene. It’s been a favorite here for a long time.”

ACL grabbed its first Peabody Award earlier this year. The Austin City Limits Music Festival, which is another source of revenue for the franchise, kicks off Oct. 12 and features the Black Keys, Weezer and scores of up-and-coming bands.

Earlier this year, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced it will digitally archive all 800-plus ACL performances to date. The ACL principals are eager to bring what Gimbel calls a “treasure trove” of musical performances to an even wider audience. Songs from the show are available on iTunes, as is an iPad app that is free to download, with a monthly subscription fee for viewing past episodes. Gimbel, studying the music industry’s steps and missteps in digital distribution, says talks are ongoing with other digital distributors, though he won’t offer specifics. “We’re seeking new opportunities to make the show available online,” he says. “That’s something we’re starting to consider as we move forward.”

Austin City Limits
typically airs on Saturday nights, on 96%-98% of PBS affiliates, including all of the Top 100 market stations, notes Gimbel. Costs are underwritten by major sponsors Budweiser, the city of Austin and tech outfits AMD and Dell; Gimbel says ACL is self-sustaining.

ACL also helps create a new wave of PBS viewer—exposing them to Antiques Roadshow, Downton Abbey and other public broadcasting staples. “Younger fans of Radiohead and Bon Iver come to PBS and may stick around to see other great programming,” Gimbel says. “We’re helping bring in the next generation of PBS viewers—and PBS donors.”

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