We have entered a trancelike state, here in our third hour of Smoke Cam. On-screen, the Roman sky has transitioned through every Crayola blue, from cornflower to midnight; there is a big gray bird that occasionally dive-bombs the chimney but never lands on it. To one side of the chimney: shingles. To the other side: shingles. That is the total of the viewing experience, for hours and hours on end.
The symbol of the Catholic Church is the pope. The symbol of the papal conclave is a chimney. Six feet tall, made of copper, affixed to the top of the Sistine Chapel. The function of the chimney is to provide, at meaningful times after each vote for a new pope, smoke. White smoke means pope. Black smoke means nope. The cardinals took an oath on Tuesday, then sequestered themselves in the chapel and disappeared from the public eye. Then there was nothing to watch but cameras watching for smoke.
(Did the camera just pan out? Why? Is there something interesting happening over there on that frieze?)
The never-ending bandwidth of the Internet has introduced us to the era of the cam. Panda Cam and Puppy Cam birthed Old Faithful Cam in Yellowstone, birthed the Spill Cam of the BP oil disaster. It’s stillness as entertainment, a zen sort of quiet, a live-streamed meditation. It’s hypnotic but purposeful. Impatient people are signing up for shortcut services that will text them when the smoke arrives, or they’re visiting sites such as IsThereWhiteSmoke.com. But there’s something gratifying about rejecting instant gratification, about going numb-butt for an entire afternoon and just watching an empty roof.
Vatican TV has a smoke cam, but they do it wrong. Theirs is too ambitious, panning over St. Peter’s Square, lingering on tourists with umbrellas, filming it all like a special for the Travel Channel. MSNBC does it wrong, too, cutting away from the chimney to hear talking heads talk about papal matters. NBCNews.com does it right. NBC News is all Smoke Cam, all the time, via a link on its Web site. The quality is fuzzy sometimes, and occasionally, one can hear the cameraman cough — dry, staccato, perfunctory — but the intent of the camera is pure and focused, dedicated to the sole purpose of monitoring the chimney.
“We are on smoke watch,” affirms Mark Lukasiewicz, the NBC senior vice president who’s arranging the network’s smoke coverage. “I put out what I call the ‘Smoke Watch Daily’ to the staff,” outlining how the chimney will be covered on that day.
(It will be covered, thoroughly, by Krzysztof Galica, the cameraman who, Lukasiewicz reveals, is in charge of Smoke Cam. Galica takes his responsibility very seriously.)
Shortly before 3 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, black smoke began pouring out of the chimney in thick, billowing clouds. The Smoke Cam cut off. NBC’s Lester Holt suddenly appeared on-screen, wearing a blue parka, after presumably waiting in the wings all afternoon.
“Black smoke is now pouring from the chimney,” he said, describing what anybody who had been watching Smoke Cam already knew. “Indicating that they’ve held their first vote.”
All of that talking, all of that blue Gore-Tex, seemed overwhelming after the serene silence of the Smoke Cam.
One can imagine the cardinals, tucked away inside the Sistine Chapel, decompressing from the difficulty of their task by huddling around a laptop. The cardinals are not voting, because they’re all watching the Smoke Cam, guaranteeing no smoke ever comes out.