Gumbel Under Glass

updated 07/04/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/04/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THE WINDOW IS BULLETPROOF, BUT THE first guest on the Today show's new set still has qualms. "The one rule of comedy is never have the crowd behind you," says Paul Reiser, star of NBC's Mad About You, as the throng on the sidewalk waits to ogle him through the plate glass. "In comedy and in New York, you should keep everybody in front."

But perhaps not in morning TV. From 1952 to 1958, Dave Garroway played host on Today in bow tie and horn-rimmed glasses from a street-level, glass-enclosed studio on West 49th Street in Manhattan. NBC has taken that idea back to the future to create a new sidewalk studio on the corner of West 49th Street and Rockefeller Plaza, and 300 spectators have gathered this morning, June 20, to help inaugurate it. In the interactive '90s, mike-and-camera kiosks jut from the sidewalk so that passersby can vote in viewer polls and kick in their own questions and comments on the air to the show's guests. And if the crowd gets rowdy? A frosted glass wall will rise inside, obscuring the view.

This morning, though, the crowd is giddy. "I've been here since midnight," admits Tim Gavin, 35, of Homestead, Fla. Says Michael Oettinger, 48, visiting from Carmel Valley, Calif., with his family: "We went to the World Cup, now we gel lo see Bryant Gumbel. It's a little bit of history."

Ratings history, NBC hopes. With Today narrowly trailing longtime leader Good Morning America, executive producer Steve Friedman says he figured that "lo win, you've got to have something different. Over lime we hope that people identify us as the show with the people outside, and that that will attract more viewers." Monday's debut would get a 50 percent higher rating than the previous Monday, but that blip doesn't faze Bob Reichblum, executive producer of GMA. "My desire is to put a window across America," he says, "not on 49th Street."

Critics were similarly unimpressed ("A peep show for waving dorks," said USA Today). But on the set Monday, Bryant Gumbel seems encouraged. "It has the capacity, on mornings where either Katie's flat or I'm flat or both of us are flat, to energize people in a fashion we might not otherwise," he says. Watching the crowd disperse, Katie Couric turns pensive. "I feel guilty I can't go out and say hi to every one of those people. Of course," she adds, brightening, "I feel guilty in every aspect of my life, so why not this one?"

ALLISON LYNN

From Our Partners