Building an Audience

Live studio audiences aren’t just living laugh tracks–they’re a vital aspect of the entertainment industry in and of themselves.

When television producers need real-life guffaws they turn to a handful of Los Angeles-based audience-wrangling firms to put butts in seats, from those clad in action slacks Downtown, to the buns of steel at Venice Beach.

“Your path in life isn’t to become an audience coordinator. It kind of finds you,” says Chris Cavarozzi, owner and president of On Camera Audiences.

Like many audience coordinators, Cavarozzi cut his teeth, if not the rug, casting “American Bandstand” for Dick Clark Productions. Following a stint with MTV, he formed his own company seven years ago and now fills studios for the “Late, Late Show With Craig Kilborn,” “Mad TV,” various stand-up shows for Comedy Central and “Family Feud,” among dozens of others.

“We don’t do sitcoms that often, we concentrate on shows that have special needs,” says Cavarozzi, who wrangles the 150 or so beer-swilling male attendees for Comedy Central’s popular “The Man Show.” “It’s all guys, so we obviously market to men.

“Each show has different needs, so depending on the show the marketing is different. Some shows market themselves rather nicely because they’re popular–they don’t need services such as ours, though we will get called occasionally because of slow times of year.”

Like much of Southern California’s economy, the audience industry feeds on the lifeblood of tourists.

“Tourists are thrilled [to be in an audience] because they’ve never done it before, but we also get a lot of local people,” says Cash Oshman, owner and president of 22-year-old Audience Associates and its web-presence TVTix.com. “Some of the shows are so popular everyone wants to go.”

Oshman’s company books audiences for all of NBC’s shows, including juggernauts “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and “The Price Is Right.” He also casts extras (including 9,000 people for the upcoming Spiderman movie).

Oshman’s company also enjoys a relationship with Downtown’s L.A. Convention Center, wherein partners of otherwise disposed convention attendees and participants can conveniently add a live taping to their Los Angeles travel itinerary.

Though steady fan bases and free tickets certainly aid in generating audiences, the notion of supplying the 150 to 250 people needed for each taping of the 25 or more shows performed on a given day remains a daunting prospect.

“You’re looking at thousands of people having to show up at the studios everyday just to fill the seats,” says Oshman. “Most of the people that come in don’t even know the tickets are free and if they did they don’t know where to go get them. Even if they knew where to get them, by the time they get back from Disneyland and Universal Studios, they’re so exhausted they wouldn’t.”

Moreover, the downturn in tourism attributed to the recent terrorist attacks has also impacted studio audiences.

“The difficulty in filling audiences from around town has been heightened by Sept. 11,” says Cavarozzi. “Over the last five or six years, the nature of tourism in L.A. is not like it used to be.”

New Routes

As tourism recovers, the companies have bolstered their grass roots approaches to garnering audiences. Not only do they contract vendors to hand out tickets at tourist spots such as Hollywood and Highland and Venice Beach, they also work with groups such as parent-teacher associations, college organizations and fundraisers. Additionally, they have embraced the Information Age.

“What has really changed everything is the web,” says Oshman, who adds that his website has already brought in 60,000 audience members.

The web allows travelers to book a TV show taping as part of their Hollywood vacation. It also automates confirmations, cancellations and schedule changes.

While Oshman enthuses about the web, he bristles at the notion of flaky audience members. “It’s very upsetting when people don’t show up. It’s the rudest thing I can possibly imagine. We go out of our way to make this available, but some people don’t have reciprocal respect.”

One element that accompanies a live taping is a lot of waiting: At a recent episode of the “Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn,” audiences were herded into lines reminiscent of those at a theme park ride. Then they were cordially escorted to a waiting lobby and summarily stripped of cell phones (to be returned later) so as not to clutter the show’s soundtrack with errant ring tones. Finally the audience was shipped upstairs to the studio in a freight elevator and seated–then re-seated to better reflect the show’s demographic.

Eventually, a “warm-up comic” swaggered out, harassed the crowd and provided a brief treatise on how to be an exemplary live studio audience–which in a word means loud. Audience wranglers note that they sometimes generate enthusiasm by hiring actors to sit in the crowd.

“Some court shows, for example, want a very upscale look in the audience,” says Cavarozzi, “So the shows are cast with non-union extras to help fluff out the look.”

Given the casts of thousands that are annually paraded through the television studios’ aisles, one would assume the audience business is a boom industry. Like the audiences themselves, however, sometimes looks can be deceiving.

Says a wry Cavarozzi, “I’m sure the grosses are fairly high–the nets in the business are fairly low. It’s a lot of hustle for not a lot of profit margin, but it’s entertainment.”