The rise of MTV was one of the key factors leading to the 1985 demise of Soundstage, the live music show produced here by PBS affiliate WTTW, says Randy King, executive vice president for television at the station. Now the dearth of music on MTV is a big reason that King has revived the show, which makes its local premiere on Thursday, July 3, at 9 PM. “In looking at the state of performance on television now, especially in the rock and pop area–other than the occasional network special, there wasn’t much out there,” says King. “We looked at a way to try to take music performance to the next level: an actual television show about the performance of the music rather than a concert that happens to be captured by a couple of cameras at the back of a huge house.” King and his partners began discussing the idea last August, and by November they had taped the first episode.

Launched in 1974, the original Soundstage brought music to the small screen in a new way, presenting intimate concerts in front of a studio audience without commercial interruptions or interview footage. The program focused on pop, rock, and soul artists (including Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Al Green, Carlos Santana, Ry Cooder, Cheap Trick, Aretha Franklin, and Marshall Crenshaw), but each 13-episode season also made room for topflight blues, jazz, country, and folk musicians. The new incarnation of Soundstage also brings something new to the TV concert format. As King says, “When we set out to do this we said, ‘Let’s exploit this technology in high-definition television and Dolby Surround Sound and really try to get the viewer to experience what it’s like to be in the second row of a concert or to be onstage during a Mike Campbell guitar solo or to see that that sound is coming from a Dobro, to rekindle that spirit of television and to bring an intimate, lush experience to the viewer.'”

Even on my conventional TV set, advance DVDs of Soundstage were visually and sonically crisp, and that clarity would be greatly enhanced on a high-definition set with 5.1 sound. But although HDTVs have been on the market for several years, they’ve just started to drop below $1,000, and while the FCC’s mandated all sets to include an integrated HD receiver by 2006, currently one of those gadgets will run you $300.

So far 290 public television stations have decided to air the new Soundstage, which means the show will be available in most markets. But as with most programming on PBS, the station that produces a show gets no revenue from other member stations, whose dues give them broadcast rights, so a corporate sponsor or partner is necessary to offset production costs. For the new Soundstage, WTTW partnered with HDReady, a Chicago-based high-definition television production company run by a pair of industry vets: Joe Thomas, former owner of country- and pop-oriented label Platinum Entertainment, produced and cowrote Brian Wilson’s 1998 solo album Imagination; Steve “Disco Sucks” Dahl is a local radio legend who currently hosts afternoons on WCKG.

That pair brings a whole lot of classic-rock baggage to the show, and in some ways the new Soundstage looks a lot like the old one. Among the artists in the upcoming season are the Doobie Brothers (paired with Ashford & Simpson), Chicago, and former Styx front man Dennis DeYoung, who’ll lug along a 40-piece orchestra and a 30-member children’s choir. Earlier in the year it was announced that Boston would also be taping an episode–which might have been mildly interesting, since the band has never performed on TV or even made a music video. But “they were scratched off our list,” says King. “That was somebody else’s suggestion that I didn’t really like. If you’re going to pick someone from that time I’d probably go with Journey, but you’d have to have Steve Perry to pull that off.”

To be fair, the new Soundstage does feature a number of somewhat edgier artists, though with the exception of Sonic Youth, they all seem pretty PBS friendly: Wilco, Lucinda Williams (with Kasey Chambers), Alison Krauss & Union Station, Dar Williams, Tom Petty, Chris Isaak, Lyle Lovett, Tori Amos, Travis Tritt, and Trace Adkins.

“Eighty percent of people in the country find programming by surfing,” King says. “It’s not destination driven like it used to be when people would tune in for Bonanza at 8 PM. What we’re hoping is that when people surf across this it’ll be unlike anything they’ve seen on TV and they’ll stop and watch it. If it takes something like Sonic Youth to bring somebody to PBS for the first time, that’s fine with me, but the hope is that they’ll tune in on a regular basis.”

But will anyone drawn in by Sonic Youth one week really return to see Michael McDonald and a few stray Doobies slog through “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” the next? There’s the rub: PBS’s viewing demographic skews toward the upper end of the 34-to-64 spectrum, and King feels that these regular viewers need to be hooked with their favorites before younger acts can be tossed at them. “As it gets out there, by episode 22 it’s easier to sneak in Local H or something, but it might not go over well in episode 3.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe, Paul Thomas.