They used to arrive before dawn. Hundreds of them came to scream and leap and wave posters scrawled with the names of their hometowns as they vied to be caught on camera among the “Today” show crowd. “People dream about coming to 30 Rockefeller Plaza,” Hoda Kotb, the show’s co-anchor, told me recently over Zoom after a show. But for the last several months, Kotb has heard the eerie sound of her own footsteps as she heads into the studio and slips behind the anchor desk, where she perches at a socially distanced remove from her co-stars and broadcasts in front of a ghostly plaza. One morning, she spied some movement outside the window — it was a nurse in scrubs, lugging a rolling suitcase — and Kotb was so hungry for a taste of audience connection, “I literally held my phone number on a white piece of paper to the glass,” she said. “I was like, ‘Call me and tell me where you’re from!’”
Since the coronavirus swept across the United States, morning-show anchors have kept bantering, late-night hosts have kept joking and politicians have kept stumping. It’s the audiences that have not showed. Their sudden disappearance has spotlighted the mythical, almost mystical, role they play in popular entertainment. The crowd has been compared to an electric spark, a dance partner, an intoxicant and a character in and of itself. It is said to hold great power over professional performers, messing with their heads and triggering hormonal surges in their glands. The crowd lends a democratic sheen to an event, legitimizing the performer’s skill and authenticating the show as real. If the crowd laughs, the joke was funny. If it boos, the call was bad. The crowd is, as Kotb put it, “the juice.” And for now, it is gone.
This has proved to be a vexing experience for the entertainers of America. When “The View” first banished its studio audience, in March, Whoopi Goldberg cried “Welcome to ‘The View’! Welcome to ‘The View’!” again and again into silence, as cameras swept an expanse of empty seats. Before he sealed himself into the N.B.A. bubble at Disney World, LeBron James could not conceive of the game without a crowd, saying: “If I show up to an arena and there ain’t no fans there? I ain’t playing.” When even A-list celebrities seem bored enough to appear at events hosted on videoconferencing software, it is the crowd that has stepped into the role of the withholding diva. A long-anticipated reunion of “Friends” is on indefinite hold, not for David Schwimmer or Jennifer Aniston but for the anonymous audience members tasked with observing them: “We cannot do it without them,” Marta Kauffman, the show’s co-creator, has said.
So longing are the shows for their crowds that they have grasped for imitations. The “Today” show has erected a “virtual plaza” and enlisted performers of its once-outdoor music series to surprise superfans at home. In a masterwork of artifice, American ballparks and European soccer stadiums have piped in the crowd roars originally created for video games. Many baseball teams have put literal stand-ins in the seats, arranging stiff cardboard cutouts of fans in macabre tableaus; at one game, the Washington Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton caught a fly ball and offered it up to the frozen visage of a cardboard baby cradled in her ersatz mother’s lap in the right field stands. And for the Video Music Awards last weekend, MTV crafted an orgy of simulation, stitching together uncanny C.G.I. fans and fake crowd buzz into a dystopian New York cityscape.
The ultimate audiences for sports, politics, talk shows and award presentations are not found inside arenas or convention halls or studios — they are watching from home, slack on the couch, absorbing ads and paying for cable and streaming packages. In normal times, the live crowd mounts a performance for the remote audience. But this summer, without our stand-ins to guide us, we home viewers confront a void. The pretense of the crowd always provided the true audience a bit of cover; we could vicariously ride its emotions, feeding off its energy, absorbing its delight and its outrage, even as we sat quietly alone at home. But now we are directly implicated in the show itself.
The television experience was largely designed to replicate live performances — to transport their spontaneous thrills into the remote home. In his book “Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture,” Philip Auslander, a professor of performance studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology, traces how TV borrowed the storytelling conventions of the theater: it was styled as an immediate event, with the viewer positioned at the scene of the action, as if watching from the lip of the stage or the sideline of the court. The classic three-camera setup mimicked the movement of the audience’s roving eye, perhaps aided with a pair of opera glasses. And even as TV absorbed more cinematic elements, playing with shifting perspectives and transpositions of time, it also built up conventions that simulate the feeling of liveness: recorded laugh trac