Major networks come up flat

Coverage: Despite months of planning, NBC, CBS and ABC largely failed to capture the grandeur and emotional impact of the pope's death.


Pope John Paul Ii : 1920 - 2005

April 03, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

After a 32-hour cable TV vigil grounded in the images of tens of thousands of pilgrims standing in St. Peter's Square beneath two windows at the Vatican residence, yesterday's announcement at 2:57 p.m. Eastern time of the pope's death brought the major networks on air with coverage they say they have been planning for months.

But for all of network TV's power to form instant global communities linking viewers from around the world to events like those taking place in Rome, yesterday's coverage felt surprisingly empty and emotionally flat, given the profound and somber moment of death on which TV's vast resources were focused.

It wasn't that television did anything particularly wrong yesterday; it was more a matter of not being up to the seriousness, grandeur and glory of the moment.

By 3 p.m., NBC, ABC and CBS were into special reports. While NBC's top anchor, Brian Williams, led its coverage, ABC and CBS were working with weekend crews that were on hand. Correspondent Bob Woodruff anchored ABC's coverage out of New York, while Thalia Assuras was at the anchor desk for CBS.

The planning was most obvious at NBC, where the network went from announcement of the news and fast sampling of reaction ranging from pilgrims in St. Peter's Square to former secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, within 20 minutes. At 3:21, NBC launched into a skillfully written, polished and pre-recorded overview of the pope's life voiced by Williams.

ABC correspondent Bill Blakemore, who has covered the pope extensively over the years, offered one of the most engaging portraits of the pontiff: "All this energy that suddenly exploded upon the world stage," Blakemore said in starting a report that made one feel the pope in life rather than death. On the other hand, correspondent Cokie Roberts' report from Rome seemed to be more about her than the pope.

CBS had a strong presence in Rome with correspondents John Roberts and Alan Pizzy. Roberts was the first to explain to viewers at 3:19 that the crowd in St. Peter's Square had not yet officially been informed of the pope's death - a fact that seemed to have escaped some of the cable channels that were focusing for tight shots of tearful faces in the crowd.

However, the most noticeable aspect of papal coverage on CBS was how quickly it ended, with the network taking leave of the story at 3:30 for the start of the pre-game NCAA basketball show.

By 5 p.m., all three networks were offering sports programming - horse racing on ABC and golf on NBC. The story of the death of Pope John Paul was once again back on cable only.

At the heart of TV's larger problem yesterday was failing to find the right pictures. Television is primarily a medium of images rather than words - and the more intimate the images, the better.

The cameras gave us the crowd in St. Peter's, but they failed to find those one or two faces in the crowd that would viscerally communicate the sorrow - or, perhaps, joy - folks watching at home were feeling.

Instead of intensely shared emotion, viewers were overwhelmed with endless details on how Catholicism and the Vatican work.

This was a story about a great man's death and what it means to the world's spiritual life. That is not a story told in factoids and talking heads.

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