Feature: 'Soundstage' plans ahead

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  June 8, 2004 at 7:21 AM
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LOS ANGELES, June 7 (UPI) -- Even though broadcasters are lagging in their efforts to convert from analog to high-definition TV, producers of the PBS concert series "Soundstage" are shooting the show in high-definition -- planning for the day when the format achieves widespread market penetration.

The show's second season begins June 17 with a two-hour special featuring Fleetwood Mac, recorded at the Fleet Center Arena in Boston. On June 24, the second episode of "Soundstage" will feature Sheryl Crow in the first part of a two-part concert series.

Relatively few U.S. viewers will be able to watch the concerts in HDTV, because so few TV stations are transmitting in the format. The FCC has mandated that all U.S. stations be capable of transmitting HDTV by 2006.

The conversion has been slower than anticipated, largely because of a familiar technological cycle: Consumers don't invest heavily in new technology until there is a wide choice of programming in the new format, and producers are reluctant to spend on new equipment without evidence that consumers will support such expansion.

In some ways, the conversion to digital from the long-standing analog system of TV broadcasting resembles the changeover from black-and-white to color TV.

Joe Thomas, director-producer of "Soundstage," told United Press International that his company -- HDReady -- is staking its future on being ahead of the HDTV game.

"The whole company was founded on the belief that this is a technology that has to be looked at as an annuity," he said.

Shooting "Soundstage" in HDTV has been a comparatively expensive proposition, particularly considering that so few U.S. stations are geared to deliver the show to viewers in that format. But Thomas said overseas broadcasters are buying the programming now.

"Japan is ahead of us in high definition," he said. "Various countries in Europe are ahead."

There is no guarantee that TV stations will complete the conversion before the FCC mandated deadline, but Thomas is confident that the conversion will be completed fairly soon -- and he fully expects his programs to be positioned to take advantage of the coming change.

"Six years, 10 years, 12 years from now this is a show that will look as fresh as shows of the next decade," he said.

But what if consumers don't want to watch old concert videos of Fleetwood Mac and Sheryl Crow 10 years from now?

"One of the more popular shows on certain cable stations are reruns of Carol Burnett and the Ed Sullivan show," said Thomas. "We as a society have an absolute need to consume our history and our past."

Besides, he said, as the number of entertainment delivery systems continues to proliferate, the need for more and more programming will persist.

"As the broadband increases, we probably could have as many as 1,500 stations in 10 years," he said. "Who knows, you might even have a Sheryl Crow channel."

The upcoming season of "Soundstage" will also feature performances by Burt Bacharach, Counting Crows, Ronald Isley, Kris Kristofferson, Cyndi Lauper, Shelby Lynne, Alanis Morissette, Lisa Marie Presley and Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts featuring Russell Crowe.

The funding for the production and the talent lineup comes in part from The Progressive Group of companies. The show also has a partnership with WTTW, Chicago's public television station.

Thomas said his goal is to break even on producing the show, but if it becomes necessary his company will step in and deficit-finance it. Profits, to the extent that there are any, will come from the aftermarket -- second and third runs, European, Japanese and other international distribution.

The musical acts work for scale, with the possibility of collecting royalties if the shows sell on DVD or other formats.

"We probably couldn't do 'Soundstage' on a network broadcast," said Thomas. "The amount of money paid to some of these artists for network shows is ridiculous. Our yearly budget probably doesn't match some of these network specials. We're doing it to try to keep our head above water and promote the art."

In any case, Thomas said "Soundstage" is a labor of love for the artists who come on the show.

"On 'Soundstage' you're not going to get the director telling them, 'We need a 7.8 rating right now so you're going to play your three hits, then we're going to put Fleetwood Mac on and when they're done we're going to come back with Tom Petty,'" he said. "That just seems like a cattle call. 'Soundstage' gives the artist a chance to show off how they perform."

Thomas said "Soundstage" has already started work on its third season, with a June 29 taping scheduled for John Mayer and Buddy Guy.

"And there are plans to go past the third season," he said. "The climate of TV changes quickly but all indications are that we are steaming ahead."


(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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