It was the first time in 26 years that Americans, sitting at home or at work, could witness the announcement of a new pope and see him speak his first words as pontiff. If it cannot be said with finality that "the whole world was watching," more of it than ever had the opportunity.
Alerted by the traditional puff of white smoke from a Vatican chimney, the electronic media sprang into action and signed on about noon EDT with cameras trained on a Vatican balcony. Not long afterward, curtains parted, doors opened, church officials appeared, and the identity of the new pope became public: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, 78, "the first German in about a thousand years" to get the job, according to Wolf Blitzer on CNN.
After a puff of white smoke appeared, television cameras trained on the Vatican balcony for the first sight of the new pope.
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The anchor was decidedly more animated than usual. "And there it is! You've heard the announcement!" he trumpeted when the name was revealed. At the sight of Ratzinger himself in his new papal garments, Blitzer went bananas: "Here he is! There he is! That's Pope Benedict XVI!"
Blitzer sounded like a little kid watching a circus parade.
As if to prove that television hasn't improved all that much since the late Pope John Paul II was introduced to the world, CBS suffered a brief loss of video, followed by a test pattern, just at the historic moment that Ratzinger emerged. They still haven't worked all the glitches out of the darn contraption.
CNN, in fact -- in the what-were-they-thinking? gesture of the day -- let a great deal of the brief ceremony go untranslated into English. The new pope's words did get instantaneous translation, however.
Meanwhile, "at least two major news organizations" erroneously reported seeing black smoke, not white, rising skyward, according to anchor Brian Williams on NBC.
A major reason that the spectacle made such good television is that the Vatican has made itself much more video-accessible since John Paul II was installed, and did so largely at his urging. "Nobody beats Vatican television," marveled anchor Chris Wallace on Fox, hailing the "unprecedented live pictures" and recalling John Paul saying -- somewhat jokingly -- "If it didn't happen on television, then it didn't happen."
So many camera positions were available that the telecasts resembled motion pictures, shot and edited over weeks or months, just as at the previous pontiff's recent funeral. Fox even gave it a movielike title: "We Have a Pope!" (later changed to the Latin "Habemus Papam").
In one striking shot, viewers saw the pope from behind, silhouetted against, and waving to, the vast, massive crowds cheering him. As a production it was worthy of Ziegfeld, or perhaps Cecil B. De Mille.
Earlier in the selection process, cameras were allowed into conclave meeting rooms, where they had never been permitted before, though no actual deliberations or voting were televised.
Quick assessments of Ratzinger as a stubborn conservative were generally consistent from network to network, though plenty of cheerleading was available everywhere from Vatican sources. On CNN, analysts provided by the Vatican called the choice "remarkable" and "breathtaking," among other adjectives.
To the other extreme, it was pointed out that this was the first papal election to be accompanied by online betting, yet another dubious blessing of the computer age. CBS anchor Bob Schieffer said -- too flippantly -- that "the smart money was on Cardinal Ratzinger." Actually, CBS didn't seem to have an anchor; Schieffer has a kind of happy-go-lucky weightlessness. But CBS News still has the longest and deepest bench when it comes to correspondents, many of whom were called into service for the big pope show.
Mark Phillips, a CBS veteran, reported that Ratzinger has earned such nicknames as "Darth Rottweiler." (On Fox, it was noted that he has been called "The Enforcer.") Phillips told viewers not to expect any softening of the church's cold, hard line against homosexuals, though a Catholic University priest insisted that Ratzinger, in addition to being "a very, very humble person," is also "always prepared to listen to the other side."
Able Allen Pizzey, said to be in line for the "CBS Evening News" anchor job, at one point told viewers he was stepping in front of the camera and interrupting the scenery "so you can see that we're actually here" -- a good idea considering the abundance of pool pictures. Richard Roth of CBS provided valuable background and detail. Least impressive of the group was John Roberts, who always seems to be searching his pockets for notes.
Was all the coverage excessive? There are an estimated 67.3 million Catholics in the United States, which hardly makes this a Catholic country. But the lure of the pageantry was irresistible to many non-Catholics, and the church has had so much bad publicity in recent years that a grand occasion, both solemn and festive, seems like a sort of equal time situation.
But it was Pizzey of CBS who most astutely summarized the reasons why interest runs so high even among non-Catholics, and why all that many-splendored coverage is justified:
"People like the idea of having a pope," Pizzey said. It's as simple as that. And now, once again, they have one. They know they do because they saw it on television.