Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley were giving instructions to a cameraman on the air. "Lower, lower," said Gumbel, directing him to pan down, still further, to the lawn spread out beneath them. There, as the camera finally revealed, four people had hoisted a wheelchair onto their shoulders so the woman in it could see the royal family assembled on a balcony over at Buckingham Palace.
It didn't seem strange at all that this should happen. It didn't seem strange at all to get up at 5:30 in the morning to watch two citizens of a long-faded empire pledging troths and tying knots and exchanging a gingerly smooch on that balcony. Pundits predicted this royal wedding would be a bore. It wasn't.
Perfectly sane people who normally don't give hoots about glass carriages and satin pumps and royal personages could be forgiven for sitting there enraptured as the coverage wore on. Forsaking all others, the networks gave this event their complete attention on the morning shows yesterday.
The networks did not give these rarefied nuptials quite the amount of coverage they gave to the marriage of Charles and Diana in 1981. NBC, for instance, sent only 50 people to London for yesterday's wedding, as opposed to 65 for Charles and Diana.
Watching all this hoopla from England yesterday, it seemed even more a pity that Americans don't televise their own royal weddings and instead have to content themselves with Britain's. The recent marriages of Caroline Kennedy and of "CBS Morning News" anchor Maria Shriver would have made terrific TV, and reporters would have had an easier time identifying the notables attending.
Gumbel and Pauley and NBC's "Today" show offered the liveliest, most watchable, most robust coverage yesterday. At times they were practically giddy, in part because this was a farewell appearance for Pauley, who now goes on maternity leave until October. "What are you beaming about?" Gumbel asked her at one point. "Well, I beam a lot these days," Pauley said. To British guests helping out with commentary, Gumbel said, "You gain a princess; we're losing a queen."
Bryant and Jane are NBC's royal couple.
Perhaps the two of them rattled on a bit too effusively. But then, they had to fill more than 40 minutes of air time waiting for Andrew and Sarah to appear on that balcony for the traditional kiss. The network refrained from cutting away for a commercial for fear it would be missed. ABC did cut away, and so "Good Morning America" was not on the air when the kiss finally occurred.
"We were very smart not to get caught in commercial," NBC News spokesman William McAndrew said from New York later yesterday. "It doesn't happen by accident." However, NBC lost its signal from London for a full minute during the lull before the balcony appearance. The signal was restored long before the kiss seen 'round the world.
Pauley sounded a refreshing note during the festivities when she pointed out that Prince Andrew is on the chubby side and has an ample, plump chin. Much had been made of Sarah Ferguson's alleged portliness and hippiness. Guest commentator Tina Brown, editor of Vanity Fair, said on NBC that people had been "incredibly mean about Sarah's figure," though she later noted, "She has a large-boned figure" and so has a hard time trying "to look slim."
When it was mentioned that a large letter A was part of the design embroidered in the bride's long train, Gumbel, having heard a remark from off-camera, chuckled, "What a terrible joke. Somebody just said, 'I guess that's the A-train.' " This was picked up by others as the day went on.
A certain irreverence seemed in order. Andrew is not the successor to the throne and all the fuss over fabrics and protocol does seem quaint. But ABC probably went too far with its decision to add comedian Joan Rivers to the coverage. An ABC spokesman confirmed that on Monday Rivers referred to the couple as "the prince and the porker." Her presence seemed freakishly inappropriate.
Perhaps if this had been a royal wedding in Iran, Rivers' cracks might have been welcome.
Peter Jump, an information officer at the British Embassy here, said yesterday "a few people" at the embassy had remarked on the tastelessness of Rivers' jokes but said her reputation for zinging British nobility had preceded her. "I steered away from watching that channel because I knew she was going to be there," Jump said. He watched NBC and the Cable News Network instead.
From London late yesterday, "GMA" executive producer Phyllis McGrady defended Rivers. "Joan Rivers is Joan Rivers. Joan Rivers does what Joan Rivers does," McGrady said. On yesterday's broadcast, said McGrady, Rivers actually derided those who made "prince and porker" references and said Ferguson looked "stunning" in her bridal dress.
"Our coverage was certainly respectful," McGrady said. "Fleet Street has crucified this woman for her weight. Joan said on the air that she thought Sarah looked fabulous and had proved everybody wrong."
ABC's coverage was coanchored by Steve Bell and Joan Lunden. Conspicuously absent: host David Hartman, who was, according to the network, taking a vacation planned far in advance of the wedding announcement. Industry rumors had it that Hartman was sitting out the wedding in a pout over problems with his new contract. But ABC News spokeswoman Elise Adde said from New York, "That's wrong. He had the vacation planned almost a year ago."
Hartman offered to postpone the vacation so he could anchor the wedding but, Adde said, McGrady and ABC executives "decided it wasn't necessary." Bell appeared uncomfortable but did a good job. Lunden tended to gush about how "exciting" everything was, and exclaimed of Nancy Reagan, "She really looks stunning, doesn't she?"
The gushing competition was probably won, however, by Shriver, teamed with a seemingly dulled, but capable, Forrest Sawyer for "CBS Morning News" coverage. Shriver found everything sort of absolutely absolute.
Nancy Reagan looked "absolutely beautiful" and "absolutely marvelous," Shriver said. Queen Elizabeth looked "absolutely wonderful." Princess Margaret, said Shriver, "also looks absolutely wonderful." Horses drawing a carriage were "absolutely wonderful." The queen in a later appearance proved "absolutely beautiful." Looking at Ferguson during the march down the aisle, Shriver said, "I must say, she is looking absolutely beautiful."
Once, Shriver looked down from her perch across from Westminster Abbey and said there were "a lot of carriages, a lot of royals" down there. Yes, a whole mess of 'em.
The credibility and professionalism of the CBS broadcast went up a notch or 10 whenever European correspondent Tom Fenton was on the screen. He was stationed at Buckingham Palace and he noted that one footman (unidentified) was really a detective in disguise and that carriages tend to sway so that some members of royalty take seasickness pills before boarding them.
CBS had the good sense to interrupt the coverage early on for a bit of actual news, delivered by Faith Daniels from a studio in Washington. NBC inserted a newscast much later in the "Today" show, and unfortunately it included a huge goof. Anchor John Palmer reported that the FCC had captured the elusive video pirate known as "Captain Midnight" and that his name was "Richard Smith."
Richard Smith is the FCC official who announced the capture of John R. MacDougall -- a k a Captain Midnight.
ABC had the funsiest guest commentators. Columnist Nigel Dempster was chatty without being nasty. Spotting Princess Margaret on screen, he noted her recent ill health and said, "She's not looking well at the moment, either." Of Prince Edward's hockey-playing amour, he said, "She's a jolly pretty girl." Prince Edward is "a bit miffed" to have discovered his hairline receding at the age of 22, said Dempster, "and he's not a happy boy."
All three networks had guest expert commentators. Jane Seymour, the ravishing actress, did a few pieces for "GMA" and proved so adept, McGrady said yesterday, that she got an offer from a British broadcasting company to be a correspondent. Other guest experts included Viscount Charles Althorp, Princess Diana's younger brother, on NBC and, on CBS, actor Roger Moore, who said, with no fear of contradiction, "We all love royal weddings."
There was a diverting array of choice shots from the pool cameras on which all three networks relied. Tiny Prince William "talks so much and is so badly behaved that he rarely goes to church," according to NBC commentator and author Robert Lacey, but William and the other mini-royals were a pleasure to watch, particularly a cluster of little girls giggling and waving from a carriage after the ceremony.
During the singing of Mozart's "Allelujah," the camera caught a stern Margaret Thatcher peering from behind a pillar. A pan of the cheering crowd outside Buckingham Palace revealed that somebody, for some unknown reason, was waving a giant inflated banana. Pomp and pageantry like this may be anachronisms, yet they certainly fill up and brighten a television screen. London photographs great.
Perhaps inevitably, though not perhaps relevantly, a comparison was made to the recent Liberty Weekend hoopla in the United States. Tina Brown said, "It's a great relief, I must admit, not to have Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope wheeled out -- but maybe at the next royal wedding, they'll be there." Anchors searched for pop stars and show biz celebrities but had to pretty much settle for Elton John, balding yet ponytailed in an Abbey pew.
Lifetime, an enterprising cable network, devoted nearly its entire day to wedding coverage, or to such pertinent diversions as a rerun of "Edward and Mrs. Simpson." Lifetime picked up coverage from England's ITV, replete with its learned and mellifluous commentators. In addition, Lifetime produced its own studio segments with Lynn Redgrave, Dr. Ruth Westheimer and others, sitting on one of the grimmest and most Spartan talk show sets in TV history. "It looked like we had an Amish set designer," a Lifetime source moaned.
After the three networks had signed off, Lifetime showed viewers the parade from the palace. Andrew and Fergie rode in a carriage with a huge teddy bear on the seat opposite theirs. On the back of the carriage was a sign that said, "Phone Home," the most memorable bit of dialogue from the film "E.T. the Extraterrestrial," and above that was a model of one of those round satellite uplink devices. Wasn't that a tasty dish to set before the queen!
All the commentators made great fusses over the fact that during the actual ceremony, Sarah Ferguson stumbled slightly when she repeated her new husband's long official name. She probably did it just to give these chatterboxes something to talk about. Lady Diana had done it at her wedding, we kept being told before the ceremony. Reporters glommed onto this as if it had earth-shattering significance.
Now and then Gumbel would try to inject a note of demurring seriousness into the coverage, at one point pausing to state that many people around the world consider such overblown pageants to be more properly the indulgence of undemocratic societies. But he was drowned out by talk of wedding gowns or hats or the sound of the crowd cheering, or something. Nobody wanted to hear any of that stuff.
On Lifetime, British anchor Andrew Gardner was the model of effortless decorum. He dutifully described the bride's complete outfit according to tradition but said, "We will not speculate on what is blue." While he talked, the crowd could be heard chanting "Sair-uh! Sair-uh!" behind him.
When the ceremony was over, and the procession from Westminster Abbey had begun, and the crowds cheered and the anchors anchored and the royalty waved, Gardner drew back for an assessment that seemed just right. "It's been a brilliant hour," he said, "and the world is somehow a happier place." Only for a moment. But every moment counts.