Originally created 03/15/05

Networks have prepared for a new pope selection

NEW YORK - With Pope John Paul II's health declining, CBS News executive Marcy McGinnis traveled to Rome to negotiate a 10-year lease for the rights to broadcast from the roof of a hotel overlooking St. Peter's Square when the pope dies.

That was nine years ago.

"I thought I was very smart making a 10-year deal," she said. "It should have been 15."

Or more, judging by the 84-year-old pope's tenacity. A papal succession is one of those big stories that television networks can assiduously prepare for, and they have. They just don't know when those plans will be needed at a moment's notice, and must make sure they're not outdated when it happens.

The pope's death will be a major story across the world that will fill many hours of airtime, and will be the first such succession in the era of 24-hour news.

"John Paul II in some remarkable way embodies the human experience in our time in a way that perhaps no other figure has since Churchill," said George Weigel, one of the pope's biographers. "When a gigantic figure like this leaves the stage of history, that is an opportunity to reflect upon that history and what it meant."

TV networks shouldn't be so concentrated on history that they miss how the event will hit people in the heart, said ABC News President David Westin.

"There are a number of people who are connected emotionally to the pope," Westin said. "We need to understand this."

ABC News was the only American network to have a full-time religion reporter, Peggy Wehmeyer, but the job was eliminated several years ago.

Now there are none.

"I may be biased, but I think that's a mistake," said Jeffery Sheler, a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report and president of the Religious Newswriters Association.

Yet even Sheler concedes that a papal succession is such a major story that networks know enough to have people study for it. To a large degree, the networks also outsource expertise, signing up commentators like they locked up retired generals for the Iraq war.

Weigel, for instance, signed an exclusive deal with NBC News six years ago. These experts are either on retainers where they already talk about religious issues, or make agreements that they will be on call at the appropriate time.

News organizations have also prepared a raft of material ahead of time. CBS News, for example, has largely completed an hourlong prime-time special on the pope that will air upon his death, McGinnis said.

"I have been interviewed for obituaries on the pope for the last 10 years and he's outlived everybody, even some of his biographers," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit weekly magazine America and author of "Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church."

For American networks, the coverage will likely resemble the aftermath of former President Reagan's death: several hours of live coverage when the news breaks, then occasional special reports on the broadcast networks. Expect cable news networks to be nearly wall-to-wall on the story.

"I think for the most part people have their plans in place," said John Stack, vice president of newsgathering for Fox News Channel. "Especially with (the pope's) health issues of the last month and a half, it was a case of people going over their plans."

The big challenge will be explaining the traditions and the conclave of cardinals that selects a new pope without making eyes glaze over, he said.

"Can you imagine what this is going to be like for 24-hour television?" Sheler said. "There's not going to be much news. The conclave is private. The cardinals when they come out of a closed event aren't going to be giving interviews. It will be journalists interviewing journalists."

Organizing coverage is a logistical nightmare for networks: they need to rent places with good camera views of St. Peter's, separate facilities for dozens of short-timers to work and hotel rooms at a moment's notice in a popular tourist town.

And woe to the network that misses the picture when a puff of smoke indicates a new pope has been chosen.

The level of attention will likely overwhelm the Vatican, too, said Marjorie Weeke, who coordinated press coverage for the Vatican until her recent retirement. (Weeke's son is an NBC News producer based in Rome).

"I think it will all work out," she said. "This is Italy. It's the land of improvisation."

The selection of a new pope will be less a religion story than a political one, dependent on old-fashioned reporting, said Mark Lukasiewicz, chief of specials for NBC News.

When John Paul II was selected in 1978, the room where the cardinals met was swept for electronic bugs, Weeke said. Cardinals will probably have to check their cell phones, pagers and computers at the door to guard against any leaks, Reese said.

"They take an oath and if they come out of the conclave and break the oath, the have to go in and ask for forgiveness," Weeke said. "It's a very serious thing."

In 1978, cardinals over age 80 weren't allowed to vote for a new pope but weren't sworn to secrecy, so they went out and told journalists what was going on, Reese said.

Now that loophole has been closed.

"Once the election is over, every monsignor in Rome will claim to know the inside story," he said. "The trouble is, will they really know? Or are they just doing this so you'll buy them lunch?"

Reese has posted a primer for journalists covering a papal succession on the Internet. Since he hasn't signed an exclusive arrangement with any network - he said he's not interested in the money - he'll be one of the most visible faces on TV when that time comes.

There's one question he won't answer. He won't make any predictions on a new pope.

"Part of it is I don't want to look like a fool when it's all over," he said. "I don't think anyone in the world is going to know who is going to be the pope."

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