No 'Limits' for PBS' Beloved Music Show

KLRU's Austin City Limits kicks off season 38 with a bang

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
, 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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