Networks make pope pick a daytime drama

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The election of Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday had all the elements of a hit daytime reality show for television networks: some comical confusion, anxiety-laden tedium and finally an exciting payoff.

ABC, CBS and NBC interrupted programming shortly before noon at the first appearance of smoke billowing from a chimney atop the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the centuries-old signal of whether the cardinals meeting inside had elected a pope.

The smoke looked white, meaning Roman Catholics had a new pope.

Or was it?

Bells were supposed to accompany the appearance of white smoke, and they weren't ringing. It drove the network anchors nuts.

"It continues to amaze me that in this world of high tech ... we have to find out that somebody is about to assume one of the most important offices in the world by reading smoke signals," said ABC's Charles Gibson.

Recalled NBC's Brian Williams later: "I think we came up with more ways to characterize the color of smoke than I thought humanly possible before today."

Gibson couldn't hide his exasperation as the uncertainty stretched beyond 10 minutes.

"I must say, they're going to have to work on this," he said.

Finally, the crowd in St. Peter's Square roared, noticing the swinging of a large bell even before it began to peal.

"Habemus Papam!" read the words on Fox News Channel's screen.

They had a pope. They just didn't know who. And TV networks filled the time with somewhat aimless talking, with cameras trained on the Vatican window where a new pope would soon emerge.

"We just saw someone peeking behind the curtain," said CBS anchor Bob Schieffer. It was a false alarm.

Killing time, CBS turned to correspondent Richard Roth in St. Peter's Square, where he interviewed the waiting faithful on who they expected would appear.

Finally, the curtains parted, the windows opened and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany was revealed as the new pope. It was a thrilling television moment.

Guessing correctly in advance, NBC had Martin Savidge stationed in the new pope's German hometown for a live report on the reaction.

Williams anchored NBC's coverage from the odd location of a makeshift studio at Oklahoma City's KFOR-TV; he was in the city for commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the federal building bombing. Gibson and Schieffer anchored from New York.

Shortly after noon, the broadcast networks left the post-selection analysis to the cable networks.

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