Inside the Secret, Not-So-Glamorous Lives of Paid Audience Members on TV Shows

It turns out the phrase "filmed in front of a live studio audience" skips over the fact that that live studio audience might have been paid to be there.

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Aug 19 2015, 4:00am

Image via Flickr user Mike Babcock

I moved to New York in the summer of 2013 to be a writer. I had no plan and no money, so while trying to jumpstart my career, I worked as a page for the talk show of Bethenny Frankel, she of Real Housewives and Skinnygirl cocktail fame. The series shot in a building owned by CBS, and I was a per diem employee for the network. When I told strangers about my job, I usually had to clarify that it wasn't anything like the position held by 30 Rock's Kenneth Parcell, the overeager and apparently ageless NBC page whose only love was "everybody and television." I wore a pink polo, and I was primarily tasked with pointing audience members to different rooms and telling them that they wouldn't have to wait much longer. Most of those attending Bethenny were middle-aged mothers, Real Housewives fans, or people who enjoy low-calorie alcoholic beverages.

In the beginning, Bethenny was popular enough. However, as the ratings started to drop in the winter, there were occasions when not enough guests showed up for the live production. In these cases, the audience coordinators tried to recruit unsuspecting tourists on the street, and if their attempts didn't succeed, they had to land on their last resort: paid audience members.

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Most of the men and women hired to watch Bethenny were aspiring actors and actresses, and they shuffled inside only minutes before shooting began, carefully whisked down the hallway as if they were illicit items that had to be rushed through customs. A majority of them were between 18 and 30 years old, and as they were still young in their careers, they treated the gig as another clip to put on their growing reels: I recall a morning when a young lady asked me if I'd kindly point her in the direction of the green room, as if she needed to change into her costume from "human" to "audience member." These viewers filled each of the empty chairs as seriously as they could, and depending how they looked (if they had a beautiful face, if they were noticeably energetic, or if they fit into an underrepresented demographic), they could be given priority seating, right in the center. Of course, nobody who actually stood outside for hours to see Bethenny was ever explicitly debriefed on the situation, though I can't say no one ever discovered what was happening.

Professional audience members are not given meticulous instructions, and they're not discouraged from participating. Essentially, they're a secret team of human morale-boosters, and they're just another way for the producers to alter both the dynamics and the televisual experience. Of course, they're easier to control, and they're more likely to continue on the circuit if they stand out for supplying a positive influence: energizing the host, appearing great on camera, maintaining an endless optimism.

There's no questioning the fact that "non-fiction" television, from CNN talking heads to the haggling on Pawn Stars, offers a staged reality. The idea that producers goaded Jersey Shorestars into arguing with one another isn't all that surprising, and the fantastical coverage of 9/11, as David Foster Wallace noted for Rolling Stone in 2001, registered as notably calculated (the anchors in short sleeves, the reporters with "mussed" hair, the "relentless rerunning of spectacular footage"). However, something strikes me as particularly manipulative about compensating people to cheer and clap during some cooking show. People being paid to act fake to support people who are being paid to act fake. The deceptive feeling is due in part, I think, to the attitude that surrounds the practice. Paid audience members exist on the peripheral of the industry, as a sort of unspoken truth that shapes talk shows. While Bethenny, as far as I could tell, used extras solely when it was in a bind, there are several shows throughout Manhattan and Connecticut that do so for every episode, regardless of the circumstances. Many paid audience members whom I approached for interviews declined—not because they feared losing their job, but because they feared identifying their job at all.

Though most paid audience members have hopes of breaking into acting, there's a small group I found who have no dreams of the big lights and the future stars on Hollywood Boulevard: bored grandmothers, unemployed job-seekers, artists desperate for a quick buck. One man, in his 30s, turned to audience work after he abandoned a profession in the medical field: He wished to have more time to focus on his creative writing.

Joining the noble ranks of professional audience members is simple. Just take a quick browse through the TV/Film/Video/Radio section of Craigslist. The ads are written as if the authors are trying to avoid detection, like they're weed dealers at a party trying to subtly indicate they have pot ("Did you want to meet my friend, Mary Jane?"). The show isn't identified by name; the location isn't given; the company doing the casting isn't stated. Audience work might be the lowest paid job in the business, and it might promote poor labor conditions—there are horror stories of pay creeping below minimum wage, overheated studios, and of unscrupulous producers taking advantage of undocumented immigrants. But in New York, once you're on the inside, it's really just one thing: It's a fucking hustle.

A friend of mine, a Brooklyn-based comedian who sits in audiences for extra cash, has his shifts confirmed only a day—sometimes just hours—before they're supposed to start. Recently, on an evening beach trip to Far Rockaway, I witnessed as he struggled to receive all the details in full by the end of the night. Though once everything is secure, he said, there's no better satisfaction. It reminded me of those scenes from Intervention, when the addict finally scores his or her drug of choice.

"All I need to know is where I'm going tomorrow," he said, as we rode the A train back to our neighborhood. "Then I'll be good."

The head of the casting agency that employs him, he explained, is notoriously difficult to pin down. In the beginning of August, when I started writing this piece, I made numerous efforts to contact the man for a comment, and he never responded. Later that same month, while I was speaking to a former accountant turned audience worker, Steve Rivera, he paused the conversation twice to text his boss about his availability for the next afternoon.

Like my buddy, Rivera thrives in this kind of environment: he gets a thrill each time he firms up a taping.

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"I've always been a hustler," the pleasant and funny 48-year-old tells me at a café near Union Square. "I've never had a choice."

Rivera grew up in Spanish Harlem. After his mother died when he was 11, he helped raise his younger sister, supporting her financially with many different occupations: stocking food in the grocery store, hanging up fliers for a pest control company, checking IDs at the door of a now defunct downtown club. In his 20s, he attempted to launch an acting career—he abandoned it, he claims, after a casting agent insisted his crow's feet would never allow him to go far. He lived in the same apartment for 37 years, until he sold his place following a dispute with the landlord. Rivera talks like a New Yorker, in the curt tone that almost convinces you he has it all figured out. After he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a few years ago, he retired and relocated to Florida, hoping to spend his days in leisure. However, he became restless. He moved back to New York from Orlando earlier this year, and since then, he has attempted to launch the acting career he feels eluded him during his youth.

"It's a second life," he says. "I'm going to try to do it over again."

Rivera serves, he claims, as a professional "cheerleader," and he has sat in the audience for AOL Builds, televangelist T.D. Jakes's show, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. But he longs for larger success, and in only ten weeks, he might be well on his way. He was approached, he claims, to be a soldier for Independence Day: Resurgence. He served as an extra on the upcoming Jennifer Lopez NBC series, Shades of Blue. He has even gotten his longtime girlfriend, who had to leave her job after a work-related injury, to join him as a paid participant in the audience. Rivera's age might help him—there are few people, he says, who do audience work over 35.

"Find your niche," he repeated to me, almost as if was his motto. "That's what I did. That's all you've got to do."

"How?" I asked.

"Go after it," he said. "That's New York, man: hustle, hustle, hustle."

Follow Alex Norcia on Twitter.

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