The greatest show on earth next week will be the visit of Pope John Paul II to the United States, and to cover it, American television has launched a logistical operation roughly on the order of D-Day.

It will be a miracle if all goes according to plan, but there have been miraculous signs already -- networks joining with networks, network news departments teaming up with local TV stations, even a tentative alliance between commercial and public television.

There is also the chance the networks may learn something from the experience. They may learn humility. The pope is one of the few people in the world who cannot be told by them to hurry up, to move along, or to wait until the cameras are ready.

The coverage will be extensive, largely live -- and costly. The bill for the three-network pool formed to carry the event will come to about$1 million -- and additionally, each network will spend an estimated $1 million on its own coverage, a top network news source says.

But then, there are few stories as spectacularly telegenic as this one, and previous trips to Mexico and Poland by John Paul II have proven to be terrific TV.

"A tiger by the tail is the way I term it," says Ray Kupiec of ABC Special Events. "This guy is gangbusters! Everybody loves him, whether they're Catholic or Protestant or what. I think it's going to be terrific. If pope fever starts catching, you may see a lot more live stuff than what the networks are planning at the moment."

Kupiec is in charge of the national network pool, a responsibility he views with a simple, "Oh, God help me." He says that for TV news this will be "like covering six mini-conventions in six days in six different cities."

Since this is not an event staged just for television -- something the networks may not be used to at this point -- all kinds of complicating restrictions have been placed on coverage by a slew of Vatican advance men to avoid the Paparazzi Effect. Some events closed to television have been opened only this week, others remain in negotiation.

No helicopter may follow the pope's motorcade through Washington, contrary to network hopes, and the altar built for the pope's mass on the Mall does not please the networks one bit.

"We'd like it down at the other end of the Mall," says Bill Headline, assistant CBS bureau chief here and in charge of Washington pool coverage. "If we were sitting down to design it, we'd do it a lot differently. We'd put in places for the cameras first and then design around that. But that's not the way life is. The Catholics want to display their man in the way they see fit."

The networks were knocked for a loop during one Friday meeting when an official of the Archdiocese of Washington told them they'd have to have all their requests for camera positions in by the following Monday. "But, we don't work weekends," one of them complained. They worked that weekend.

TV, of course, needs sound as well as pictures. When audio men queried the Vatican to find out if the pope will speak sitting down or standing up, they were told, "The pope will speak sitting down -- except when he stands up."

"A lot of people don't understand our business, so we have to do a lot of educating along the way," Headline says.

One industry insider sees this as a learning experience for "the business" as well. "The networks really don't know what to do about all this," he says. "They're panicked. They know that nothing's going to go on schedule, that a lot of stuff will happen two hours late."

Indeed, it is the pope's distinctive unpredictability that makes him both a blessing and a worry to the networks. There is absolutely no telling when he might feel the urge to mingle with a crowd and throw the schedule off its tracks.

"I don't trust him at all, and I say that in a very fond way," says ABC's Kupiec. "I was with him in Rome, Mexico and Poland, and while he adheres to a schedule a little bit, you never really know when he's going to stop and talk with a bunch of children along the way."

"His most unpredictable times have been on his airplane," says Burton Benjamin, director of news for CBS News. "I remember on the Mexico trip, we were allowed to have sent a one-man camera guy while the other networks sent a correspondent. Well it never occurred to me that the pope would come to the back of the plane and talk to everybody, but he did."

This time all three networks will have a "one-man camera guy" on the pope's airplane when it leaves Rome for Ireland and then Boston, "We managed to get six seats out of the Vatican for that one," Kupiec notes.

Asked if there is much chance the pope will adhere to his schedule once he arrives, Russell Shaw, secretary for public affairs of the U.S. Catholic Conference replies, "Very little," with a sigh of resignation.

"God willing this is going to be a beautiful event," says Shaw, "and I just hope the media people will take it with great good humor and patience. It will be humanly impossible for the pope to keep to that schedule. The trouble with the pope is, he's a very generous man with his time. He may want to stop and talk to people at a moment's notice."

The number of people who will visit Washington during the pope's visit here might break a record; the number of media people in attendance almost certainly will. There have been more than 14,000 requests for press credentials: Shaw envisions 5000 credentialed "media people" trying to cover the pope in Washington alone.

"There's no way on God's earth that anyone can provide for a press corps of 5,000!" he says. "We may have to go to a system of credentials on top of credentials, where your basic credential will entitle you to put something in your memory book but you'll need other credentials to get beyond that."

Only 270 journalists will be able to fit on the papal plane and the two press planes that will follow it around the country. Only 20 in each city will be able to squeeze onto pool buses. "It's all politics who gets to go on those," one insider says.

Because of the huge numbers of cameras required in each city to cover the pope, the networks have had no choice but to form a pool for some coverage in each city (and the coordinating national pool over which Kupiec rides herd) and to enlist the aid of the local affiliates in each city, even though network news personnel traditionally look down on their brethren in the hustings.

"It's the single most cooperative effort between the networks and the affiliates I've ever seen," says Len Deibert, public affairs manager for Channel 7 (WJLA TV) here. "It's extraordinary. I've never seen anything like it."

In Washington alone, Deibert says, there will be 56 pool cameras following the pope. That is in addition to whatever additional cameras the networks and local stations bring in for pictures of their own.

Public television will be able to tap into the pool for pictures as well, in Washington and other cities, although Kupiec says the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) has made no financial contribution whatever to the national pool fund.PBS claims it will "offer more live coverage of Pope John Paul II during his visit to the United States than any of the commercial networks" -- 27 hours, as opposed to 6 1/2 schedule so far by CBS, with other networks in the same ball park.

The Washington Bible came out Wednesday -- that's the name given to the detailed itinerary it is hoped the pope will follow while in Washington. Deibert notes that in his first public appearance in the capital, he will look out from the balcony of St. Matthew's to one of the key pool camera positions -- right atop the "Pancake Palace" restaurant.

Headline is a little worried that by the end of the week "we'll have seen so many masses and so many parades that, as a national story, this might be waning a little," but Ed Fouhy, CBS News bureau chief in Washington, says of the Washington part of the visit -- near the end of the pope's tour -- "There ought to be three very good stories that Sunday morning alone. It isn't going to be a here-he-comes, there-he-goes kind of thing."

Has there ever been anything to compare with it in Washington, at least in terms of television logistics and expected crowds? Fouhy and most other TV journalists say there has probably been nothing on this scale since the funeral of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

Whatever the slip-ups and surprises and no matter how infinite the number of potential headaches, this promises to be sensational TV.People may be looking more kindly upon their television sets when it is all over.

Independent producer Eric Kulberg, working on a $100,000 film chronicle of the trip for the Catholic Conference, views it all philosophically, if not religiously.

"This is not a media event," Kulberg says. "This is a people's event. This is truly an event in which television will have to cover what the people do and not something the media created themselves."

And Shaw, worried about "getting people into airplanes and on pool buses" and squeezing 5,000 reporters onto the White House grounds at once, still feels he can safely, if not entirely originally, declare, "When all is said and done, God's in his heaven, all's right with the world."

Ready on camera two? Cue the pope!

But you don't cue the pope. The pope cues you.