NEW YORK – New York City provides a glamorous, exciting backdrop for TV shows from The Late Show With David Letterman to Saturday Night Live – at least it did two weeks ago.
Since the attacks on the World Trade Center, several Broadway productions have canceled their runs, the country has had the worst box office weekend all year and New York-based talk and comedy shows have had a tough time filling seats.
"We've had smaller than normal crowds," acknowledged Michael Gelman, producer of Live With Regis and Kelly.
However, despite reduced audiences, the fans who do show up are more gung-ho than ever, he said.
"They've been upbeat and all seeming to be looking for entertainment and diversion – not that they don't acknowledge what's happening, but they realize you can't just watch tragedy coverage."
There was evidence of just such sentiment at the Times Square visitor's center, where the crowds were sparse, but glad to be in New York and undeterred.
"We figured tourism is down, it's a good time to come and to help the city," said Per Westerdal, a Boeing employee from Bellevue, Wash., who made plans to come to New York with his family after the attacks occurred on Sept. 11.
His 20-something son Jay added, "We saw Rent last night. We're going to see Conan O'Brien tonight. … There was no line."
Indeed, last Friday, outside the NBC studios where standby tickets to Late Night With Conan O'Brien are given out at 9 a.m. each day, only about 15 people were waiting and all easily got tickets to the show.
"People are still truckin' out here," said Jeremy Williams who was handing out tickets, adding that the crowd seemed like a mix between locals and tourists.
As for the mood of the crowds, Gelman said, "They've been mirroring the feelings of the entire nation. Anger, they're in mourning. But they've been much more upbeat than I ever really thought. I always equate a smaller house with a quiet audience, but people want to be entertained. People want to laugh."
After taking a short hiatus, TV personalities and executives scrambled to begin normal, somewhat toned-down versions of their shows.
The first few days back on air were somber. Dan Rather wept on David Letterman's show. Jon Stewart got choked up as he resumed work on The Daily Show. Rosie O'Donnell seemed near tears as she struggled for the right balance of comedy and respect and said that it was difficult to get guests, many who live on the West Coast, to fly to New York.
So far, tourism agencies acknowledge that the numbers of visitors are down, but blame canceled flights more than fear for the slowdown and say they expect the crowds to return.
"No one has really done a definitive study yet [on tourism numbers]," said Mary Gendron, spokesperson for the Hotel Association. She said hotel occupancy is about half of what it normally is at this time of year. But she added that there is already evidence of an upturn.
"Certainly there were a flood of cancellations, but that tide has been stemmed," she said.
New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has suggested that people get back to their normal lives and help revitalize the city. "I encourage people from all over the country who want to help, I have a great way of helping: Come here and spend money. Go to a restaurant, a play – you might actually have a better chance of getting tickets to The Producers now, if you want to come here and see it."
And while most people acknowledge that life is far from normal, it may be the best time for travelers to see their favorite TV personalities.
"I was very afraid we would have no people in the audience," said Gelman. "But I was pleasantly surprised that the numbers were higher than I thought. … At least half were out-of-towners."
And despite some trepidation and smaller crowds, audiences are pulling together just as New York and the nation has in the days since the tragedies.
"From what they say to us after the show, everyone feels like that they are part of a team and very patriotic," Gelman said.