Pop's hit (and miss) parade
Fragmented tastes keep music out of public TV’s primetime

Originally published in Current, Jan. 27, 2003
By Karen Everhart

Randy King of WTTW describes Soundstage as the "original music television," giving an aura of hipness to the station’s long-gone PBS show.

King is leading production of a 13-episode summer season that revives Soundstage as a high-definition showcase for artists who were hot in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The show will lean more toward nostalgia than edginess to attract 40-somethings—younger boomers who wistfully recall a high school crush when they hear the 1979 Styx hit "Babe."

"We want to appeal to boomer tastes with more of an updated feel to some of it," says King, executive producer at the Chicago station. The series, a showcase for rock, pop and folk that aired in primetime from 1974 to 1983, returns to PBS fully funded by co-producer HD Ready and will be offered through the National Program Service, according to producers. The new Soundstage gets a trial run during March pledge with a special featuring Lyle Lovett and Randy Newman performing movie tunes.

Even though it’s charging out of the gate with an unusual PBS commitment to feed it in the core schedule, Soundstage faces more than a few bumps in the road ahead. Boomer music generally performs poorly ratings-wise and—apart from the doo-wop craze—inconsistently at pledge time.

Though music is a rewarding part of life for many Americans, public TV programmers have moved it to the margins of late night. It occasionally sneaks into primetime in Great Performances, or when it’s pledge time and there are compact discs to offer as premiums.

"Music programming is so splintered, whatever you do is going to get a small audience," explains Craig Reed, analyst for TRAC Media Services. Broad-appeal "middle of the road" music died a long time ago, leaving America’s musical tastes so segmented that any one genre will get a 1.0 rating or, at best, a 1.5.

Contemporary music is tricky for public TV because artists that appeal to younger tastes turn away PBS’s core viewers, he notes. "If a 65-year-old woman turns on the TV and sees a guy with long hair, she’s going to turn away." That’s why music shows end up in late-night fringe slots, where local programmers create blocks that appeal to boomers and young surfers of the digital age.

But creative local scheduling is problematic for producers of contemporary music series. "The different local schedules made it impossible to market and advertise," says Jeb Brien, executive producer of Sessions at West 54th Street, an eclectic and edgy music series that American Public Television distributed free to stations for three seasons. It launched with common carriage that dissipated over time, and went off the air in 2000 when underwriting dried up. Limits on public TV sponsor credits also turned off potential underwriters, he says.

"The problem is, you go directly to the client and they think it’s a great idea, but then they consult with their ad agency, which says they’re not getting enough bang for the buck," explains Brien. He’s talking with a prospective sponsor about bringing Sessions back to public TV. Universal Television Group’s digital cable channel Trio is now airing reruns.

"I appreciate the importance of local programming, but they need to have some unifying center in terms of music programming," says John Beug, senior v.p. of strategic marketing for Warner Music Group, a frequent music producer for public TV. His most recent PBS show was Josh Groban’s December pledge special for Great Performances [related story on "classical crossover" tenors].

Groban’s long, curly locks didn’t turn off PBS’s loyal legions of grandmas. His concert special drew very strong ratings, notes Reed. "That was heavily promoted. He was everywhere and therefore did well."

Beug fires up Warner Music Group’s publicity machine to bring consumers to its music programs on PBS, but stations don’t always reciprocate by airing them in common carriage, he says. "Some stations get cantankerous" and take a wait-and-see approach to scheduling pledge specials. "That doesn’t work for us."

Apart from Austin City Limits, the 28-season perennial that blends American roots music with rock, there’s no consistent venue for any one type of music on public TV. Producers at KLRU in Austin, who offer the series free to stations, say 96 percent of stations carry it, mostly in late-night weekend slots, but no one has enough money to promote it.

Great Performances serves a variety of musical tastes and performance arts interests, though more than a third of its shows each year run during pledge drives, where emotional appeal is more important than a broader audience. Music specials that air during pledge—such as the doo-wop cavalcades from Pittsburgh’s WQED, crossover-classical heartthrobs like Groban, or boomer-band reunions—earn their timeslots by getting viewers to phone in pledges.

Contemporary music programs on public TV nowadays "tend to be anything that’s associated with nostalgia," says David Horn, production exec at WNET in New York. "There was a time when we could say, ‘Here’s the best artist doing the best thing,’ and people appreciated and responded to that." The nostalgia trend is "a money thing," he says. "When you give them nostalgia, they feel good and open up their wallets."

In the 1990s, WNET launched In the Spotlight, a boomer music series that CPB and PBS funded through a special initiative. Like Soundstage, the series targeted boomers with such artists as Sting, Sade, Elton John and Bob Dylan, recalls Horn. "We were not trying to be edgy—we were trying to bring that audience in," he explained. "The ratings were low, and it didn’t do particularly well in pledge—other than Bob Dylan."

"My theory is that you can’t throw an island out there and expect people who don’t normally watch PBS to find it," Horn adds. WNET scheduled In the Spotlight in a special block of boomer shows that doubled the station’s audience for the Monday night slot.

The station tried pop music again by signing on as presenter of the last two seasons of Sessions at West 54th, aimed for a younger, urban hipster crowd. "No matter where we put it, we got a 1.5," says Horn, who supervised the series for WNET. "It had a dedicated and loyal audience, but it never was a factor in primetime."

Even so, Sessions featured then-unknown artists such as critic fave Beck, who went on to win three Grammy awards and is nominated for another this year. "It was a nice place for artists to gain exposure," said Horn. "It had it’s own kind of buzz."

Beck delivered an explosive performance on Austin City Limits early this month. During an extended jam with the psychedelic band the Flaming Lips, teenagers and college kids were on their feet shouting the refrain to "Where It’s At." They roared when Beck danced around the stage, then did splits. Viewer response to the show was especially strong, according to Maury Sullivan, KLRU spokeswoman.

"We came on the scene during the era of album-oriented rock formats where deejays controlled their musical choices, and today we find ourselves unique in being one of the few remaining free-form outlets, similar to a college radio station," said Ed Bailey, KLRU’s v.p. of brand development. "It’s our responsibility as well as our privilege to look for music that’s out of the mainstream."

The strength of Austin City Limits is the breadth of American musical styles it presents to an audience that spans generations. It’s "one of the few things going on out there that’s different," adds Bailey. "You’ll never see a program that blends [styles] the way we do."

Once funded by PBS’s National Program Service, Austin City Limits struggled financially as a PBS syndication offer in the late 1990s. KLRU began offering it free to stations about two years ago, and carriage shot back up. All the same, it’s a constant struggle to keep it going, acknowledges Dick Peterson, executive producer. He’s trying to raise money for promotion, and KLRU’s marketers want to hook up with venturesome station programmers to air the series in more viewer-friendly slots.

"We would welcome the opportunity to experiment with them," says Bailey.

"Most of the time, stations won’t run a music show unless it’s a pledge show," comments Nikki Vettel, a producer and former APT exec who developed Sessions. "That’s frustrating to me because the way to build an audience for pledge is to run music shows without pledging them."

"I’d like to think for a period of time there was a bit of a different audience coming to public TV because we were not just recognizing them as consumers," she adds. "People would come in and find it interesting, because they could find these artists on an unlikely broadcast venue."

Isaak in red suit and white guitar

WTTW and PBS will try to bring contemporary music back to primetime with artists like Chris Isaak, shown taping a concert for a revived Soundstage. (Photo: WTTW.)

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Earlier article on Sessions at West 54th, 1997.

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