On the last day of the year, Jack Perry sat watching the cars rolling up Sixth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. I was watching too. The traffic was sparse and the pavements, once thick with pedestrians, were all but empty as they have been for nine months.
Neither of us was there though. I was at home, tuned in to livestream footage of this crossroads which is broadcast by Vuit, a free online TV station. Mr Perry, chief executive of its parent company Syncbak, was watching from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Others were watching from all over the country, part of a new audience of remote tourists glued to livestream footage of New York.
Brian Cury, founder of Earthcam, which has thousands of cameras all over the world, said: “Manhattan has definitely been trending, every day more and more.”
New York began pulling in viewers after it became the centre of the pandemic in the US, he said. Mr Cury thinks it was partly fascination with how America’s biggest city had emptied out. People gawped as they might at a car crash. “It was, ‘Oh my god, people aren’t on the streets of Times Square,’” he said. They could tune in to Earthcam’s footage of Times Square to check. In November, when the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade rolled through Manhattan on a rainy day, without crowds, people tuned in to watch. One New York camera went from 12,000 viewers a month to a million. “A lot of people said: ‘There is nothing to see.’ But it’s like, well, that’s the point,” Mr Cury said. “It’s like if you are searching for life in the universe and you don’t find any. Did you fail or did you just discover that there is no life in the universe?”
Vuit had originally broadcast footage of Sixth Avenue from a corner window of its studios to fill in between live performances by musicians and comedians. It closed the studio on March 13, as the city shut down, but left the camera rolling. He first began to realise that it had an audience when the sound failed. “I had an email from a viewer to say, ‘Turn the sound back on.’ They wanted to hear the sounds of New York, the sirens, the crowds. I thought, let’s lean in on this thing.” The viewers came “from over two hundred markets in the US,” he said. “We had people watching in Pocatello, Idaho, in Billings, Montana.” It’s funded by ads.
The plain and unadorned footage of a New York avenue proved so popular that this week the company drafted in Brian McGuinness, a comedian, to provide live commentary. “Brian narrated very simple things like how often the trash bins get emptied,” Mr Perry said. “It was actually kind of fascinating to see how often trash gets collected. He explained what the bus system was, what uptown means as opposed to downtown.”
I used to work in a building just beyond the upper edge of the screen on Vuit’s feed and tuned in myself to see what I was missing. “Good morning everybody,” Mr McGuinness said. Some may have recognised his voice, for Mr McGuinness also plays a talking bear in a cough syrup commercial. “People all over the country are watching this thing,” he said, as the traffic rolled on up the avenue in a mesmerising stream.
He pointed out a tiny tractor riding “like the king” on the back of a flat-bed truck and a lone figure sprinting. “It’s New York city,” Mr McGuinness declared. “You never know what’s going to take place.”
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