Long-running musical TV series is getting fancy new digs and a hipper format

by Chris Riemenschneider

Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

1 November 2010

Spoon's appearance on "Austin City Limits" aired October 9, 2010. (KLRU-TV/MCT) 

AUSTIN, Texas — As if his introduction of veteran art-punk band Sonic Youth wasn’t enough proof that change is afoot at the country’s longest-running TV music show, producer Terry Lickona told an excited crowd at a recent taping, “It’s a historic time here at ‘Austin City Limits.’”

Sonic Youth was one of the final tapings for the PBS series’ 36th season, its last season inside the cramped, rustic but acoustically blessed landmark studio on the University of Texas campus. Willie Nelson taped the first “ACL” episode in 1974 during the heyday of Austin’s redneck hippie era.

It’s a sharply different city now. Austin entered a new era in the ‘00s flush with fast-rising condo towers and two internationally popular music festivals, one of which is named after the PBS series. “Austin City Limits,” the TV show, is moving on up and modernizing along with its namesake town.

Early next year, the series — the only TV show to be awarded a National Medal of Arts — will relocate to a new $40 million studio attached to a posh W Hotel in downtown Austin. The lineup for the current season (which kicked off Oct. 2) demonstrates how far the show has already come in constructing a younger, hipper, more diverse array of performers.

Instead of the Clint Blacks and Pam Tillises you might have seen 15 years ago, Season 36 will include shows with John Legend and the Roots, Brandi Carlile, the Black Keys, the National, Band of Horses and Sonic Youth. The latter four acts all taped their shows in the days around the Austin City Limits Festival in early October.

“The festival has been a great tool in helping us expand the brand,” Lickona said. “We’re appealing to that younger demographic, but I think we’re still a show their parents may want to watch, too.”

He and other “ACL” reps proudly donned hard hats and safety glasses to show off their new facility to newspeople and agents in town for the festival. While only 320 fans could squeeze into the old studio, the new venue can hold more than 2,700 with its two towering balconies. It will double as a full-time concert facility and include VIP suites for sponsors — a possible financial boon for the nonprofit TV show.

Lickona showed little remorse over ditching the old studio, which hosted Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Stevie Ray Vaughan in addition to living greats such as Bob Dylan, B.B. King and Loretta Lynn.

“We’ll always have the history and are very proud of it,” the producer said. “But the old studio was never designed for a music show. That’s a fact we’ve dealt with for a long, long time.”

There’s at least one sure sign that “Austin City Limits” staffers and current city leaders haven’t forgotten their roots, though: The 2nd Street signs outside the new studio were recently changed to “Willie Nelson Blvd.” The man who immortalized “Whiskey River” and “I Gotta Get Drunk” — and who also happens to be an investor in the Austin City Limits Theater — will soon be immortalized in a bronze statue outside the studio, across the street from the new City Hall.

“ACL” is no longer just for PBS, though. Episodes can now be watched on the show’s website, www.AustinCityLimits.org. They are also being sold as albums and DVDs.

The new studio could bring new shows, too. The “ACL” staff plans to develop a Latin-music counterpart to the series. A stand-up comedy show is also being considered.

Despite all the newness, producers are committed to maintaining the integrity of “ACL” — its intimate vibe, and its focus on live performance and songwriting as art forms.

“We’d be run out of town if we messed up the things that have made this show special,” Lickona said. “The one thing that will never change is the No. 1 thing we look for in a performer, which is originality.”

Perhaps the most emblematic thing about the show will have to change, though: its backdrop of the Austin city skyline. The State Capitol and the famed/infamous University of Texas tower (where a sniper killed 16 people back in 1966) are no longer the most prominent structures in the real-life Austin skyline.

“We’ll downplay the condo towers,” Lickona promised. “We don’t want it to look like Houston.”

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