Rome braces for the Big Story

Media jockeying for spots to cover news from Vatican


February 13, 2005|By John Cook | John Cook,Chicago Tribune

In Rome, they call it the Big Story. The deteriorating health and inevitable earthly demise of Pope John Paul II is one of the most anticipated news events in recent history, and the world's television networks have been rehearsing for it for nearly a decade.

When the moment does arrive, the pope's death will trigger a vast array of lights, cables, remote control cameras and microwave relays that have been lying dormant in and around St. Peter's Basilica for years, waiting to spring into action and carry out carefully written and repeatedly revised coverage plans.

For ABC News, which has strategically placed robotic, remote-controlled cameras around the Vatican for instant live shots, it will be literally automatic. "It will be a matter of pressing a button and spending the money," said ABC News senior vice president Paul Slavin.

Slavin and other executives came close to pressing that button earlier this month, when the pope was rushed to a Rome hospital with the flu. Producers and correspondents began revisiting their pre-taped obituaries to "freshen them up" and make sure that they are contemporary.

"It was 1996 that I went to Rome myself to negotiate roof rights," said Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president for news coverage at CBS News. "Every broadcaster in the world has a rooftop or balcony lined up."

Indeed, a case of what broadcasters dubbed "rooftop envy" swept through the Vatican in 1996 when the pope underwent surgery to have his appendix removed and TV networks swarmed the area, striking exclusive deals with hotels and private homeowners whose buildings and balconies overlook St. Peter's Square.

David Bernknopf, a former CNN executive who was involved in planning for coverage of the pope's death, said preparations for covering the story try to account for every contingency.

"It was very detailed -- it's like planning a war," Bernknopf said. "Who will do the first live shots? Who gets on the plane? What experts do we call? Who internally gets called when he gets sick?"

While some networks have requests for hotel rooms at the ready, Slavin said ABC isn't leaving anything to chance; it's simply rented out some rooms near the Vatican for years.

For all the planning, though, the longevity and surprising vigor of the pope throughout years of ill health have put some of those arrangements in jeopardy.

When CBS News arranged for its rooftop, for instance, it struck a 10-year deal, figuring that would be more than enough time to ensure a spot for the pope's death and funeral. But that deal is set to expire next year.

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