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A.M. TV: To be a face in the crowd at a network morning show, follow our guidelines

Sunday, June 04, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

NEW YORK -- On the sidewalk outside the "Today" show, just about every movement is greeted with cheers. It could be a camera turning toward the crowd or an Al Roker sighting. Whatever the cause, the crowd is easily excited.

And that's the general feeling outside "Today": anticipation, followed by excitement. America's No. 1 morning news show was the first to have a ground-level studio with "windows on the world," if that world consists of New York City tourists eager to be seen on TV.

Getting on TV was once a rare thing. Today, it's probably rarer if you do not get on television at some point in your life. And NBC's "Today," ABC's "Good Morning America" and CBS's "The Early Show" (airing live, 7 to 9 a.m. weekdays) offer anyone willing to rise before the sun a chance for a few seconds on the small screen.

On a mid-May visit to "Today," Melody Wilson of San Marcos, Texas, hoped to get on TV long enough for her grandmother to see her. But she didn't bring a sign.

"Our Wal-Mart was out of poster board," she said. "It's a little town."

Diane Sawyer showed up in the last half-hour of ABC's "Good Morning America" with clothespins pulling together the folds on the back of her oversized suit jacket. (Rob Owen, Post-Gazette) 

Other visitors came up with unique ways of sending greetings to loved ones at home. Cherie Benson of Decatur, Mich., brought the compact handle from her Swiffer duster to hold up a sign with greetings for her husband.

A group of General Electric retirees from Erie held red helium balloons. They were pretty far from the cameras but at least their balloons got on TV.

Getting face time isn't everyone's goal. For many, visiting one of the morning shows is a chance to see a favorite newscaster.

"We wanted to see Matt Lauer and see if he's as handsome as he looks on TV," said Christine Pazian of Buffalo. "We don't care about getting on TV."

Jennifer Newton of Wyalusing, Pa., in northeastern Bradford County, works for a bus charter service that arranged for a school band's trip to "The Early Show." Standing on the plaza outside CBS's "Early Show" windows, Newton said she watches anchors Bryant Gumbel and Jane Clayson every day.

"It's the only station we get out in Wyalusing, out where there are cows," Newton said. "We can't get cable out there."

All the morning show hosts realize that to some degree they are a tourist attraction, and most take time to shake hands, sign autographs and pose for pictures.

There's a friendly atmosphere in the crowd at each morning show. Strangers chat with one another, share tips on touring New York and gab about their television favorites.

"It's the pulse of the people, not just studio talking heads," said Beth Miller of Bath, N.Y., explaining why she likes the crowd interaction at "Today."

Brother and sister Jason and Amanda Cole from Bowling Green, Ky., arrived at the "GMA" studio a little past 6:15 a.m.

"I want to be on TV, just to say I did it," Jason said.

"When you're from Kentucky, you shoot for high goals," Amanda said. Getting up to be at "GMA" was not unusually early for the pair. They live on a horse farm and regularly rise at 5 a.m.

For some, the outdoor studios aren't an intended destination, rather, a curious and unexpected detour. Dave Carstens, a 19-year-old from Portland, Ore., had no plans to visit "GMA," but "it was the first thing on my way north on Broadway."

He stuck around to watch the two-hour broadcast.

"It's obviously fine-tuned to their needs, but it's really interesting to see behind the scenes," Carstens said.

Giveaways are common at morning shows, even if they're not being passed out by program employees. At "The Early Show," a woman handed out Balance energy bars to passers-by. The day I visited "Today," Expedia.com had a woman dispensing orange juice (Expedia signs inquired, "Katie, have you planned your vacation?").

At "GMA," a producer handed out pins with the "GMA" logo and cards with a picture of the anchors. Some in the audience used the card to get autographs later in the morning when Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson descended from the second-floor studio to mingle with the crowd.

Keep in mind: Every day is different at the morning shows. Some days the crowds will be smaller, other days larger (especially on concert Fridays at "Today").

Weather is also a variable. "Good Morning America" is the only morning show with an indoor studio and a canopy over the sidewalk outside that shields onlookers from rain. On a nasty weather day, I'd choose "GMA" over "Today."

Here's a guide to the morning shows based on visits to each:

"Today" (NBC)

Location: Rockefeller Center at 49th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues.

Crowd size: Large.

The set-up: Crowd control fences are arranged in a rectangle the length of the street between 48th and 49th streets. Onlookers stand outside the fence while the "Today" hosts and production crew are inside -- greeting visitors, filming outdoor segments. The day I was there, a batting cage was set up for members of the United States Olympic Softball team.

Even when the anchors are inside the studio, you can hear and see the "Today" show thanks to strategically placed monitors and speakers.

Get there by: Depends how close you want to be to the front. By 6:15 a.m., the crowd was already three deep around the fenced area where the hosts and camera operators stand.

Families promoting August's Mother Earth Music and Arts Festival (www.peaceweavers.com) in Bath, N.Y., arrived at 4:15 a.m. A software company (www.nano.com) hired actors to wear specially designed coats promoting its product. They set up along the fence at 5 a.m.

Getting up against the fence pretty much guarantees you a spot on TV. A troupe of 60 Napoleonic Guards from France showed up in full dress regalia, but they didn't stay close to the fence, missing their chance to be on national television.

Key to getting on TV: Members of the Peaceweavers group were smart. Not only did they arrive early, they brought T-shirts for the cast and, more importantly, the crew. Never underestimate the usefulness of greasing the palms of the folks who do heavy lifting.

"We talked to the sound engineer and he let us know the best place [to stand]," said Will Rex of Bath, N.Y.

The group stood along the fence in front of Dean & Deluca. Cameras panned along that row of onlookers more than any other.

Places to take cover: Few. Dean & Deluca, which opens at 6:30 a.m., sells coffee and breakfast treats and is also an inviting place to take cover from rain or snow. But it's a small shop, and there's not space for everyone who shows up to watch "Today." At 10 Rockefeller Center, on the 48th Street side of the studio, there's a good place to escape the rain or snow.

Studio view: Not great. Security guards tell passersby to move along if they linger on the sidewalk closest to the studio windows.

Host interaction: High. The "Today" show is the first and best at letting visitors get close to news celebrities. Al Roker usually begins offering his weather reports from outside after 7:30 a.m. In good weather, Katie Couric and Matt Lauer come outside at 8 a.m. News anchor Ann Curry talked to tourists during the 8 and 8:30 a.m. half-hours after her newscasts.

You should also know: "Weekend Today" is broadcast from the same studio live on Saturday 7-9 a.m. and on Sunday 8-9 a.m. Locally, WPXI deprives viewers the opportunity to see the show, but friends and family in other markets will have the chance to see you.

Get the most TV experience for your time in N.Y.


"Good Morning America" (ABC)

Location: 44th Street and Broadway in Times Square

Crowd size: Medium

The set-up: Viewers can watch from outside the windows on Times Square or they can pass through a metal detector and stand inside the first-floor studio. Unlike "Today," where there were screams and whistles, "GMA" inspired only polite applause, possibly because it's an indoor studio.

Get there by: On the day I visited, people had no trouble getting into the studio at 6:45 a.m. Even after the broadcast began, "GMA" employees stood outside the studio, inviting people in. Tickets are available by calling 212-580-5176, where a recording insists people arrive by 6:15 a.m.

Key to getting on TV: Getting inside the studio, which was easy the day of my visit.

Places to take cover: The only morning show with an indoor studio that welcomes guests, "GMA" also has an overhang outside that covers most of the sidewalk. In inclement weather, "GMA" is the only morning show that can keep visitors dry.

Studio View: Unfortunately for tourists, most of the action in the first hour takes place in the second-floor studio upstairs, which is off-limits to the masses. But visitors can watch "GMA" on TV sets that hang from the first-floor studio ceiling.

Host interaction: Weathercaster Tony Perkins broadcasts the weather from outside the ground floor studio after 7:30 a.m. Hosts Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer come downstairs later in the broadcast.

Even before then, "GMA" crew members showed children how to operate a camera attached to a long arm that's used to pan over the studio audience.

Diane Sawyer showed up in the last half-hour of the broadcast with clothespins pulling together the folds on the back of her too-big suit jacket.

You should also know: You can watch "GMA" through the studio windows while standing on the sidewalk and at the same time see the "Today" show, broadcast with closed captioning on the Jumbotron screen in Times Square.

"The Early Show" (CBS)

Location: Corner of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street in the Trump International Building.

Crowd size: Small-to-nonexistent

The set-up: Like "Today," the set for "The Early Show" is on the ground floor behind a wall of windows. There's a small plaza outside where tourists can gather. A larger sunken plaza is being built, but at this point it's just a hole in the ground.

Get there by: Anytime during the 7- 9 a.m. broadcast. At 6:57 a.m., no one was waiting for the show to begin, except the woman handing out Balance Bars. Then the Sullivan County High School marching band from Northeastern Pennsylvania unloaded from a bus.

Key to getting on TV: Showing up.

"It's a real good place to bring people, because it's not as crowded," said Marianne Autorimo from nearby New Jersey. "There's a real chance to get on the air."

Places to take cover: The FAO Schwarz toy store nearby doesn't open until 10 a.m. weekdays, so that doesn't help. There's always the Plaza Hotel across Fifth Avenue, but it's pretty ritzy and they probably don't have an open-arms policy for the unwashed masses.

Studio view: Unlike "Today," where guards shoo onlookers away from the studio's glass windows, security guards at "The Early Show" don't seem to mind faces pressed against the glass. Monitors broadcasting "The Early Show" at the bottom of the windows draw you to them, and getting close is necessary to hear the audio feed that doesn't travel far from a few small speakers. It's easier to see the westward-facing "Early Show" monitors than the eastward-facing "Today" monitors, which catch the sun's glare.

Host interaction: Mark McEwen sometimes does his weather segments from the studio rooftop, but he's often down in the plaza with tourists.

The day I visited, anchors Bryant Gumbel and Jane Clayson came out briefly at 8 a.m. to open the hour in front of the high school band.

You should also know: "The Early Show" is looking for high school bands, choruses, etc. to pre-arrange visits to the show. A travel agent set up Sullivan County High's appearance, according to band director Jessica Martz. To try to arrange an outdoor performance by a school band or chorus, contact Joe Long via e-mail at jdl@cbsnews.com.

A Saturday edition of "Early Show" broadcasts from the same studio, 7-9 a.m.

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