If when in Rome you do as the "Today" show does, you will get to meet the pope. Television's oldest morning information program made TV history yesterday when it began Holy Week on location in Rome with scenes from a mass celebrated by John Paul II in his private chapel in the Vatican.
The "Today" show got as close as it probably ever will get to being a holy see.
After taped scenes from the mass, attended by the cast and "Today" executive producer Steve Friedman (who looked confused but impressed), viewers saw the pope greet program coanchors Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley, weatherman Willard Scott, reporter Bob Jamieson and others from the NBC News entourage. An NBC News vice president, Timothy Russert, who was instrumental in arranging the seemingly unarrangable meeting, presented the pope and some Vatican officials with baseball caps imprinted "NBC News."
A cardinal got a red cap and the pope, smiling warmly, got a white one.
"You're looking at something unprecedented in American television," said Gumbel in narration as the program began, while viewers saw tape of the day's papal greeting to the "Today" ensemble. Later there was more footage of the greeting. The pope presented his visitors with souvenir rosary beads and they presented him with, in addition to the caps, a floral display they had flown in from Warsaw.
"You brought that from Warsaw?" asked the pope, raising his eyebrows in what seemed like slight incredulity. As the pope left the receiving room, Gumbel gave Pauley's back a bolstering pat. Viewers could see they were indeed nervous and moved; a viewer might well have felt nervous and moved with them. After showing the footage, Gumbel told viewers, "We had goose bumps" during the mass, and Pauley, showing a seasoned knack for saying just the right thing, commented, "We represented many, many faiths and were universally moved by the experience."
"Today's" trip to Rome is part of a revitalization plan for the program that seems to be working, since in the most recent Nielsen ratings it interrupted, for at least one week, the three-year grip that ABC's "Good Morning America" has had on first place in morning-show ratings. Thus were Willard Scott's brave first words to viewers yesterday, "Friends, Romans and countrymen, lend me your ears. I have come to bury David Hartman, not to praise him."
Hartman is the host of "GMA." He was absent the week of the fateful ratings dip and the usual industry sources claim he staged one of his usual reported tantrums upon learning of the calamitous mishap.
"Today" looked brighter than usual in the Roman sun. The program is fed live in the Italian afternoon, because of the time difference, and yesterday Gumbel and Pauley sat in what Gumbel, with his sportscaster background, referred to as "the end zone" of the Colosseum. Scott roamed, as is his wont, when in Rome or not. "Here I am where I belong, among the ruins," he said from in front of remains of the Roman Senate. And later, to a street vendor, Scott inquired, "How much lire for this doorknob?"
Willard is the quintessential innocent abroad.
The program also included a tarantella by members of the Rome Ballet, an interview with Silvio Cardinal Oddi of the Vatican, reports on politics and tax evasion ("the national pastime") in Italy, a tour of Naples narrated by Gore Vidal, an interview with U.S. Ambassador Maxwell Rabb and his wife, a short talk with Italian President Alessandro Pertini, interviews with director Federico Fellini and actor Marcello Mastroianni, stunning aerial views of the city from a Goodyear blimp and, prior to breaks, snatches of music that was ancient-Roman-sounding even though it dates back only a few decades. It was written for Hollywood biblical epics -- and by a Hungarian, Miklos Rosza.
Although Gumbel did a poor job interviewing him, actor Peter Ustinov also paid a felicitous visit, wearing a toga as he did when he played Nero in the film "Quo Vadis."
Gumbel billed him as someone who would "debunk" myths about the Colosseum, but Ustinov said to Gumbel when he got on the air, "I don't think there's anything to be debunked." He has a trove of funny stories about making the epic film, but he only got to tell one of them, about what a hard time the director had convincing hired lions that they should go after the artificial Christians.
"The lions were forming a line to get back into the cage where the shade was," Ustinov says. "We couldn't interest them in a single Christian." Ustinov is a raconteur. Unfortunately we are living in an age of sound bites.
But for an unforeseen tragedy, "The CBS Morning News" would also be on the road this week. Plans had called for coanchor Bill Kurtis to do inserts for the program from Israel, reporting on Holy Week and Passover observances there. But after two free-lance journalists working for CBS were killed by Israeli soldiers during fighting in Lebanon, CBS News president Edward M. Joyce canceled the Israel trip as part of his protest.
Meanwhile, the road grows increasingly crowded. ABC News recently made the extraordinarily ambitious effort of sending "Nightline" to South Africa for a week of broadcasts during a period that turned out to be particularly eventful there. "Today" visited Moscow in September and will travel to Vietnam for broadcasts originating there the week of April 29.
The "Today" show trip can be seen as part of an orchestrated cross-promotional effort on the part of NBC, and it is unseemly in this light, especially considering the papal participation. This just happens to be the week NBC is airing the mini-series "A.D.," set in ancient Rome. Last night "NBC Nightly News," surely by no coincidence, included a report on the "charismatic" John Paul II.
NBC News president Lawrence K. Grossman, who initiated the idea of sending the "Today" show on the road, is also a zealous promoter. Some gains in "Today" ratings have been attributed to strategic placement of "Today" promos during popular prime-time programs. Special promos, featuring footage of the pope, were aired last week to ballyhoo this week's shows.
Certain unsavory aspects of it aside, the shrewdly planned Roman holiday was a pleasure to watch on the air. In an age of satellites and Ku-band trucks and instant global hookups, it is a bit absurd that so much news television remains moored in New York and Washington. In traveling to Rome and in landing perhaps the world's most coveted guest, the "Today" show reaffirmed itself as the best of the morning shows and a great American television institution.