June 17--Anyone whose image of the long-running PBS series "Austin City Limits" is of singer-songwriters sitting on stools while picking out songs on acoustic guitars hasn't been paying attention.
A taping of a concert by the French techno-pop band Phoenix last month was a far cry from the first episode of the show in 1974 with a denim-clad Willie Nelson performing before a cowboy-hat wearing crowd. Neither does a new state-of-the-art live music venue downtown, where the show is taped, much resemble the traditional black box TV studio of PBS affiliate KLRU-TV, which produces the show, on the University of Texas campus that served as the show's home for 36 years.
The atmosphere at the Phoenix concert was more like a party than a TV show, with bar service and the faint smell of marijuana. The band, touring in support of a new album, thrashed onstage in front of a silhouette of the Austin skyline.
Stadium seating ringed the hall's perimeter and fans crowded a standing room area in front of the stage dancing as the band broke into the hits "Liztomania" and "1901" and the infectiously percussive "Entertainment" from the new album "Bankrupt."
Seven cameras captured the 90-minute performance -- whose encores found singer Thomas Mars mingling with the crowd and dangling from the mezzanine -- that will be edited to 60 minutes for the show's 40th season in October.
"Austin City Limits" is the longest-running music show on TV. Every PBS market carries the show, and it is available in 98% of all TV households. It airs at 10 p.m. Saturdays and 11 p.m. Thursdays on WMVS-TV (Channel 10).
Although the show has come a long way from its roots, it has remained true to its mission, said executive producer Terry Lickona.
"The only reason we're still around ... is because the show has evolved," said Lickona, who joined the show shortly after its inception.
The original intent was to feature Texas music, Cajun and country.
"Once we burned through that scene we incorporated more Nashville," Lickona said. They featured roots music "before the term Americana was coined. But the mission has always been to showcase authentic original music, no matter what label you slap on it or where its from and showcase it in an unfettered natural environment," said Lickona.
"If somebody has an original sound or style, that's the kind of artist we want" on the show.
The most challenging "and frankly kind of painful" transition for the show was the move in 2011 into the new Moody Theater and studio in the W Austin Hotel and Residences.
"We had clearly outgrown" the old studio, which seated 300. The new studio accommodates 2,750 on three floors.
"We had looked around for potential locations, but being a local public TV station we didn't have" the resources.
But "a local developer came long and made us an offer we couldn't refuse," said Lickona. KLRU still owns the show, but the venue is owned by the developer, who produces live shows there under a separate operation.
The new studio, which the show helped design, is basically "a big recording studio" with "amazing sight lines and built-in production facilities." But much of the show's history, including an artist graffiti wall, was left at the old studio.
"If you walked into the old studio you'd think we were doing a show tomorrow."
But a gallery of life-size photographs of the show over the years give new bands "a sense of legacy and history."
Phoenix singer Mars even shouted that the band hoped the crowd thought they were helping "keep Austin weird."
The first show at the new studio was the Steve Miller Band. The show tapes 20 concerts a year, whenever artists are available. Bands control the sound mix and there is a rehearsal run-through of the entire show "for the director who will time out every song and figure out where the solos and choruses are so he can set up camera angles," he said.
After the show, Lickona tapes interviews with artists that are edited into the shows and appear on its website atacltv.com.
KLRU owns all the original footage from the show but not commercial release rights. Performances are posted on the show's website within a month after broadcast but plans are afoot to stream tapings live as they take place.
"The old model of taping a show in May and having it sitting on a shelf until it airs seems a little dated. If we could do a live stream in May and broadcast in the fall, we'd have twice the exposure. Its a great two-for-one combination."
Lickona said that while Phoenix prohibited live streaming, the Lumineers allowed it.
Taping announcements are posted on the show's website, and free tickets are available on a first-come first-serve basis. Reserved seating is available through a subscription program. The bands are paid the union minimum scale of $500.
The show is paying off for PBS as well, by bringing it a younger audience.
The average age of the PBS viewer is 55 and above, but the "Austin City Limits" demographic "is all over the map," said Lickona. "It depends on who's performing." Yet older viewers stuck with the show even as the music changed.
"It's ironic" he said that a 40-year old show "has one of the younger ... hipper audiences on public television."
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