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Q & A

DAVID HORN : Rock 'n' Rollin' on PBS

February 28, 1993|JIM WASHBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC WRITER

A rock concert on PBS? It must be pledge time.

The cynical assumption that PBS stations only condescend to present rock music when it needs to attract yuppie dollars isn't entirely unearned. Aside from a few exceptions and the occasional nod from the country-leaning "Austin City Limits," public television has paid scant attention to rock music over the years.

PBS is now looking to amend that situation with "In the Spotlight," a series produced by WNET in New York that focuses on popular rock acts, captured either in concert or in unique performance situations. It debuts Tuesday with the first of a two-part special from the October, 1992, "Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Celebration" at Madison Square Garden, featuring Dylan, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Sinead O'Connor and others. The concert had previously aired only as a $20 pay-per-view event. Other shows in the series will feature Billy Joel, John Mellencamp, Elton John, Joe Cocker and a variety of artists interpreting Beatles songs.

The series' executive producer David Horn brings a background as a performing musician to his 13 years as a multiple-Emmy-winning producer with PBS' "Great Performances" series. Among Horn's productions are "Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall," "Spike and Co.: Do It A Cappella," "The Gospel at Colonus" and specials with Natalie Cole and Harry Connick Jr.

Horn spoke with Times pop music writer Jim Washburn about PBS' step into the rock arena.

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What was the idea behind "In the Spotlight"?

It's an outgrowth of a conscious effort we've made over the last several years to broaden the base of "Great Performances" by including more things that might be termed as pop music, though we haven't done out-and-out rock 'n' roll. We had only dabbled in it for public television, with some of the regional networks purchasing things for pledge periods. If you look at the public television numbers, they tend to skew to an older audience. The specific reason for "In the Spotlight," as far as PBS is concerned, is that the baby boomer audience is one that public television needs to attract in order to survive. But my view, from a musical standpoint, is that once we see someone is being underserved, we try to jump in. I've grown tired of seeing music videos, and you don't find much live popular music in prime time now. It used to be with variety shows and things like "In Concert" that there wasn't a strong need for that type of programming on public television.

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Will "In the Spotlight" shows have a set format?

We're trying to do a mixture of straight live concert events with concept shows that might cover some sort of musical movement or might be a more interesting way to approach a body of work. For example I'm working on developing a concept show with John Mellencamp on New Traditionalists, focused on folk-type songwriting from the heartland. We're shooting one called "The Beatles Songbook," which is an attempt to use popular, familiar tunes to get some artists on who wouldn't normally get a prime-time shot. We'll have Dr. John, Kathy Mattea, Nils Lofgren, Buddy Guy, Los Lobos, the Bobs, Mark O'Connor and a few others.

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Isn't the Billy Joel show a bit different as well?

It's a performance documentary, trying to trace the creative process. We're talking to him at different points in the songwriting process, watching a bit of it and getting his feelings about the songs--what's changing with them, the problems they pose and how he resolves them--and then get to see a private performance of the completed material. For him to let people in on him facing a blank canvas and showing how he fills it is a very personal, very difficult type of program to do, but he's letting us do it because he's intrigued with the idea of taking a risk.

Along with doing shows like this, I want to make sure we are able to provide the event . I don't want studio-bound performances. I want to make sure I get the excitement of a live event out there, say for those boomers who have kids and can't get out and spend the money and see the concert.

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Are there any plans to match the musical visions with a particular director's vision, as "Great Performances" did with "Spike and Co.: Do it A Cappella" (featuring Spike Lee and directed by Lee's cinematographer Ernest Dickerson)?

I really like the idea of bringing in an interesting director to come up with a different visual interpretation that isn't just a music video. For example, Robbie Robertson and Martin Scorsese were roommates for a while. When Robertson did his "Storyville" album, I thought it would have been ideal to combine the two of them to do a visual interpretation of it. I'm all for things like that.

"In the Spotlight" (Parts One and Two) airs Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. on KCET and March 7-8 at 7 p.m. on KPBS.

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