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AUDIENCES—Sitcom Producers Resort to ‘Pay-to-Watch’ Audiences

Wolf Patterson doesn’t mind sitting on his behind for a living. “It’s work and I’ll take it,” said the 42-year-old Canadian. Patterson is part of a growing trend in the entertainment industry he’s a paid audience member for network television shows. Earning $6.25 per hour for a minimum four hours, Patterson, a struggling singer and actor, makes nearly $300 each week watching situation comedies and daytime talk shows. “It pays my rent, so what more could I ask for?” Patterson quipped. It was just last year that the country and western singer arrived from Vancouver, via Nashville, to make his mark in the music industry. But after a few stints as a store clerk and waiter, Patterson drifted into being a paid audience member by day and a musician by night. Patterson’s story is not unusual, says Rebecca Statkus Smith, manager of AppleOne Employment Services in Woodland Hills. Smith, whose agency places Patterson and others for those shows, says paid audience members often come back for more. “A lot of them do it for a living, believe it or not,” Smith said. Although paying people is a recent development, live audiences have been around situation comedies, in particular, since the 1950s. In a 1989 interview just before her death, Lucille Ball said she and her husband Desi Arnaz had to fight with CBS to allow them to film “I Love Lucy” in front of a live audience in 1950. Soon after the show became a ratings hit, others, like “The Honeymooners,” followed suit and the practice became an industry standard. Many today credit “I Love Lucy’s” success to eventual widespread use of live audiences for situation comedies from the late 1960s until the present. “Today it’s unthinkable to film a situation comedy without an audience. You just can’t do it,” said Alan Kirschenbaum, producer of CBS’s “Yes, Dear,” which also uses paid audiences recruited by AppleOne. A handful of the most popular sitcoms particularly “Friends” and Frasier” still manage to attract audiences who want nothing more than the chance to see their favorite TV stars in action. Most, however, use paid audiences. With more efficient schedules that require filming during daytime hours when most potential audience members are at work, television producers say they have been hiring audiences for the past five years, more and more heavily each season. Hard day at the sitcom Smith has been hiring audience participants just since July when a television production company approached her about the issue. The office places an average of 20 people per day for various television tapings. Altogether, Smith has about 300 people in a database of paid audience participants with more added every day. Through its web site, the company advertises for potential audience members who are then asked to sign up by calling the Woodland Hills office. Applicants are screened, given a brief orientation class and shown a video about workplace safety. Unlike other job seekers, these applicants are not tested or trained on computers or other equipment, Smith said. “We want people who like to watch television and who want to have fun,” she said. AppleOne’s core job opportunities remain clerical and entry-level administrative positions. But its audience participation jobs continue to attract a steady stream of both young and old, along with those hoping to break into show business. Patterson, for instance, says he wanted to meet industry professionals and to network with fellow performers, many of whom have joined the ranks of these paid television show audiences. “You can’t believe the kinds of people I’ve met out there,” Patterson said. One woman, who goes only by the name Christina, said she hopes to break into acting by attending the tapings and meeting important people. “It’s a dream of mine, you could say, to act and get into the business,” said the 22-year-old college student. But, like Patterson, Christina said she enjoys watching the shows even if she does get paid for it. “I love watching people work and do comedy. It’s the best,” she said. Among her favorite shows to watch in person are CBS’s “Becker,” starring Ted Danson, and “Yes, Dear,” a new sitcom that premiered in October. Although the tapings usually last two hours, many run longer, depending on the number of “takes” or scenes filmed. Many times, scenes are shot several times, in front of an audience that must still react to the jokes as if they were brand new. ‘It’s a living’ None of this bothers Patterson, who says he loves every minute of it. “It’s like magic. I love the whole process, so it doesn’t bore me,” he said. Patterson’s kind of enthusiasm is gratifying to “Yes, Dear” producer Kirschenbaum whose show’s success, he said, relies on audience reaction. “In comedy, you need that immediate feedback that only an audience can give,” he said. “In shows like ours, you need that proof to know that it’s very funny.”

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