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Find your seat in TV audience

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK / / Wouldn't want to miss Matt Lauer's 10th anniversary as host of the Today show.

Had to get up early, hit 30 Rockefeller Center at 6:45 a.m. and still found scores of people already lined up next to the Today show picture windows. They cheered and waved colorful posters -- far too colorful for that time of day.

"Happy Birthday, Stephanie." "Chicago Girls Love NYC." "Happy Anniversary from Big Easy to Big Apple." "We Love Al [Roker, the weatherman]." "We missed our flight to be on Today."

That's right. These are the people, the ones who come from other parts of the country to see live (or recently recorded) TV as it's broadcast from New York City, the town where entertainment television began.

I figured watching some television shows in person might serve as a theme for a New York vacation. I did find it's possible to get a partial immersion into the TV scene during a short stay -- but not without some effort.

The news-light, feature-heavy early morning shows can be accessed from the streets, and that's where most out-of-towners get their broadcast jollies if they fail to meet the stringent ticketing requirements of the late-night shows with limited seating.

Matt and Al and the gang did give us an entertaining couple of hours. They stepped outside and chatted us up numerous times.

Lots of jokes about Matt's thinning hair. Lots of strolls down memory lane with Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel.

The show has quite a pull. Sally Fletchinger from Baton Rouge, La., was there with daughters Ali and Stacy. "We're actually visiting friends in Philadelphia," Fletchinger told me, "but we couldn't resist coming here."

Monika Parashar missed her Seattle-bound flight, as did her siblings and a cousin. So they made their "missed our flight" sign and cheered like crazy whenever a camera's red light pointed their way. "This was definitely worth missing the plane," Monika said.

Travelers were more inclined to attend the morning news-and-fluff shows, because access is far less complicated than for programs with a seated studio audience. In the morning, they may have to stand on the sidewalk, but they still get a fairly close look at the talent. Sometimes a camera might focus on the crowd. All during the Today Show, sidewalk people screamed into cell phones, "Did you see me? I'm on TV!"

One weekday evening, the audience warm-up guy for Late Night With Conan O'Brien asked people to yell out their hometowns. Aside from one Finnish couple and two people from Chicago, most of the 189 spectators came from no farther away than New Jersey.

The crowds for shows such as O'Brien's, The Late Show With David Letterman, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report tend to be bridge-and-tunnel people with extraordinary patience. Out-of-towners don't always have the time to wait in line for standby tickets that may never materialize. Or they can't find a taping date that coincides with their visit.

Generally, it works like this: You request to see a show on a day -- weeks hence -- when you can arrange to be in town.

Then you wait to find out whether your request will result in tickets of admission. No charge, but plenty of emotional outlay if you really, really need to see that host or hostess in person and the ticket people don't get right back to you. Out-of-town applicants should keep in mind that many New Yorkers regard getting-right-back-to-you as a sign of weakness.

A good example of the hurdles to be jumped can be found on the David Letterman Web site. One may fill in an online request form, naming the desired date and two alternate dates, which can be up to one month in advance.

Applicants will be called and granted admission until tickets for those dates run out. If the phone doesn't ring by the day before each chosen date, try, try again. But not until six months have passed.

That's not all: "A ticket will only be issued to those individuals who correctly answer a random trivia question about the show," the instruction sheet says.

People already in town may apply in person at the Ed Sullivan Theater, Broadway between 53rd and 54th streets, where the show is taped. Two staff members sit at a long table in the bare-bones lobby from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. They'll call you if your application is one of the lucky ones that night.

For an hour each morning, you can phone in and request standby tickets for a show the same night. Then you stand in line and wait. No guarantee that you'll get in.

My wife, Juju, and I dropped by the Ed Sullivan Theater one morning. When we were told that we would have to show up two hours before the 5:30 p.m. taping (if we were lucky enough to get tickets), we gave up. Scheduling conflict, you see.

I had arranged (full disclosure here) for VIP tickets to The Daily Show With Jon Stewart one night and Late Night With Conan O'Brien on another. Unfortunately, that left no time for David Letterman.

Even with our anticipated VIP status, Juju and I had to wait in line outside the factory-like Daily Show studio on a typically drab Midtown section of 11th Avenue, across the street from a car-repair shop. Our daughter, Amy, a latecomer, had to wait in the even-less-distinguished stand-by line.

We were on a list on somebody's clipboard, or maybe we weren't. The suspense mounted for about an hour, until a staff member passed along the line and handed us pink cards with numbers on them. We were in!

Tickets are free, but the audience warm-up people demand cheers. The Daily Show guy scurried about the surprisingly small set, waving his arms and exhorting the 300 spectators to yell and scream as loud as they could. "Hey, I like that yelp," he told one young man. "Keep it up." He looked at me and ordered, "Hands out of your pockets! This isn't an art museum."

Most of the 300, seated in a half-circle, were hip to the Daily Show routine. When Stewart introduced his "chief Baghdad correspondent," the fact that the correspondent was standing five feet away in front of a green screen drew hardly a giggle.

Conan O'Brien used a green screen, too. Aides asked the Finnish couple to step to the rear of the studio for a moment. A woman took one of their spots. Then O'Brien looked up and said, "That's odd. I see an empty seat. We always have a full audience here." Viewers at home could tell there was an ever-so-tiny man perched on the seatback.

He yelled, "Hey, Conan, I'm right here." Viewers in the audience could see the same man, full-size, sitting in front of a green screen, stage left.

Even if all ticket requests fail, New York visitors can take the NBC Studio Tour and get a behind-the-scenes look at network operations. Juju, Amy and I joined about a dozen others and followed two NBC pages up elevators and through hallways. We saw the surprisingly compact stages used by Saturday Night Live and the cozy studio where Brian Williams reads the NBC Nightly News.

A page named Ariel pointed out a rear projection screen behind the news desk. "There's actually a one-minute loop on that screen of a control room in New Jersey," she said. "It was taped around 3 a.m. Next time you watch it, you'll see somebody walk in, put a piece of paper down and walk out. A minute later, he'll do the same thing. He's been doing that since 1999, and he's called the hardest-working man in show business for that reason."

We saw videotape of makeup artists at work and took a look around the surprisingly (again) small Dateline set. Toward the end, two young women offered to try their hand at newscasting and weather reporting on a mock set. The women bravely did their thing, stumbling a bit over words scrolling through the teleprompters. The weatherwoman waved at the West Coast while predicting storms in the East, but that just added to the fun.

Afterwards, we filed back down to the NBC Experience gift store, where merchandise of all sorts bears the famed peacock logo, and Leave It to Beaver plays on a television screen. It's in a display case filled with all sorts of outdated broadcast equipment, from enormous microphones to a sound-effects gravel box.

Of course, this was simply a tiny portion of all that New York TV has to offer those with the forbearance to meet ticketing requirements and wait in lines. Conceivably, someone could string together a long vacation hopping from show to show.

It does take bravery. This is channel surfing without the remote. And nothing is quite what it seems to be. I asked an NBC staffer at Rockefeller Center where they tape the show 30 Rock.

"Mostly in Queens," she said.

Robert Cross writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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