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We’ve Got a Great Audience … at Home


“It feels like we’re auditioning,” a dazed Ryan Seacrest said on live television Wednesday morning, before a sea of empty seats.

Two hours later, in another bare studio, Whoopi Goldberg sat at a table with her four co-hosts on “The View” and put it plainly: “For the first time ever, as you can see, if you looked around, we made the decision not to have a studio audience. This is unprecedented.”

And later on Wednesday, several late-night shows in New York, including “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” on CBS, and “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” on NBC, announced that they, too, would film without studio audiences starting on Monday.

As the coronavirus severely disrupts daily life in the United States and limits the number of in-person gatherings being held around the country, it is also affecting an American institution that provides a virtual gathering spot for millions of people: the daily talk show.

Talk show producers have said for years that they need a good audience to make a good episode. Many of the shows bring audience members into the studio an hour before showtime. For some shows, music is pumping at eardrum-splitting volumes, the better to whip fans into a frenzy and get them primed for big reactions live on air.

Now those big laughs and cheers will be silenced for the foreseeable future.

The syndicated talk shows “Live With Kelly and Ryan” and “The View” both barred studio audiences beginning on Wednesday because of fears surrounding the coronavirus. Other talk shows, such as “Dr. Phil” and “The Wendy Williams Show,” have made the same decision, joining Los Angeles-based game shows, like “Wheel of Fortune” and Jeopardy!,” that said this week that they would forgo studio audiences.

“That shouldn’t stop everyone from watching at home,” Mr. Seacrest’s co-host, Kelly Ripa, said on Wednesday. “Because let’s face it: You can’t go anywhere else!”

NBC’s “Late Night With Seth Meyers” and Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” were among the New York-based late-night shows that said they would film without studio audiences starting on Monday. Two weekly late-night shows — “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” on HBO and Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal” on TBS — said they would forgo audiences, too.

“Per guidance from New York City officials, the company is hoping to do its part to help to decrease the rate of transmission in our communities,” NBC said in a statement.

On Wednesday morning, adjusting to the new reality played out in real time.

Mr. Seacrest and Ms. Ripa did their show in front of roughly a dozen staff members, who tried to gamely laugh at the hosts’ jokes.

“Guys, if you keep applauding, it’s going to get so irritating,” Ms. Ripa said, in a teasing manner, in response to the echoing whoops and cheers from the small group of producers.

“It’s going to get annoying, OK?” Mr. Seacrest added. “We don’t get that much ever.”

When Kal Penn came out as the show’s first guest, he pantomimed high-fiving a bunch of open seats as the camera followed him sprinting into a nearly empty studio.

Wendy Williams introduced staff members to her TV-watching audience, including one she calls “Sunshine” because, she said, he never smiles.

“I’ve been told this is going to be going on for a few weeks, y’all,” she said.

At another point, she put a cigarette in her mouth and took a faux drag on it, before handing the pack to a crew member. “We’re stressed out — pass them around,” she said.

And when Ms. Goldberg began “The View,” the camera panned to dozens of empty seats, as she said: “Well, hello, hello, hello. Welcome to ‘The View,’ y’all!’” She repeated “Welcome to ‘The View’” seven more times, pretending there was an audience to hear it.

The late-night shows could face a difficult adjustment period. Both Mr. Fallon and David Letterman did shows to empty studios in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but their shows were only briefly affected. The current situation could last much longer.

“You’re dealing with two difficult issues,” said Rob Burnett, a former executive producer of Mr. Letterman’s late-night show, in an interview. “You’re dealing with a news story that you have to be judicious with whether you can even make jokes about it. If this thing is killing people right and left, it’s going to be hard to yuk it up about coronavirus.”

“And then, of course, how do you tell jokes in an empty studio?” he said. “Jokes are meant to be told in front of people that laugh. In the long run, it’s very difficult to do a comedy show without an audience.”

At the start of Mr. Colbert’s show, for instance, he bursts from a backstage area to the roars of the Ed Sullivan Theater audience, and races to the front row to slap hands with guests.

“Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune” were the first shows to shed their audiences, a decision that was based on several factors, according to two people briefed on the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the particulars of the situation. First, most of the guests who attend tapings tend to skew older, and they generally travel from around the country.

In the case of “Jeopardy!” there was also the need to protect Alex Trebek, the longtime host, who has pancreatic cancer and a severely diminished immune system.

Both shows are produced by Sony’s television division. The company also decided to make a similar decision for the Norman Lear sitcom “One Day at a Time,” which taped without a studio audience on Tuesday.

“Saturday Night Live,” another late-night show that films in New York with a studio audience, is on hiatus until March 28.

For the daily late-night shows, the possibility of canceled guests and monologues delivered to empty seats could provide an opening for hosts to get creative about what to include in their broadcasts, Mr. Burnett said. But how long the hosts, not to mention their staffs and crews, will remain in the studio is also an open question.

“That’s a safety issue,” Mr. Burnett said. “The show must go on until it can’t go on.”

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