March 12, 2013

Habemus Papam on TV

In case you hadn’t heard, the papal conclave begins today, and within a few days – perhaps, even, by the time you get around to reading this – the Roman Catholic Church will have a new pope.

Dating back to the 13th Century, the conclave, in which the cardinals* of the Church gather to deliberate and vote, is steeped in tradition, ceremony and secrecy.  It seems a throwback to another era entirely - the white smoke coming out of the temporary chimney, the cardinals emerging from the Sistine Chapel, the Cardinal Protodeacon appearing on the balcony to announce the name of the new pope.  And yet, for all its medieval trappings, the ritual has translated amazingly well to television.  In fact, if we look back at papal elections in the TV era, we see that the ceremony has remained essentially the same - it's the rest of the world that changes.

*Those under the age of 80.

Paul VI, June, 1963.  The cameras capture the chimney silhouetted against the Roman sky, the white smoke signaling the good news.  The breaking news is, as always, in black-and-white.  The crowds are polite and respectful, as always.

John Paul I, August, 1978.  Everyone thought the smoke was black, or at least grey - even if you don't speak Italian, you can tell that the broadcasters were as stunned as everyone when the doors swung open.  The look is similar, but the broadcast is now in color, and the cameras capture a closer look at the new pope.  The crowd is appropriately excited, not quite as restrained as 15 years before, don't you think?

John Paul II, October, 1978.  Only two months later, and not much has changed other than that the balcony is bathed in spotlights to illuminate the fall evening.  Note that at the 1:31 mark, as Cardinal Felicci announces the new pope's first name, "Carolum," you can hear ABC's analyst, Fr. Vincent O'Keefe, whisper, "The Pole!  Wojtyla!"  Considering that few outside the conclave thought Wojtyla a contender, it speaks to how well-prepared Fr. O'Keefe is in his preparation.  The crowd doesn't know quite what to make of this new, "foreign" pope, but roars its approval at the choice of his name, in honor of John Paul I.

Benedict XVI, April, 2005.  Here we see perhaps the greatest evolution in coverage.  The cameras are now more at eye level, rather than giving us the feeling of looking "up" at the balcony.  There are more closeups as well, and by the time the pope leaves the balcony (not seen here), we're actually looking over his shoulder at the cheering crowds.  The crowds themselves are less inhibited than we've seen in the past, with applause almost entirely replaced by cheering.

It's difficult to know what to expect this year.  It will be in high-def, which is an advancement.  I would expect we might have even more camera locations - perhaps even one on the balcony itself. The crowds will be large, I suspect, but this is a strange situation, with the pope having abdicated rather than died; there's a sadness, but of a different kind, and without that closure I wonder if people will be as enthusiastic as they have in the past.
Regardless, in a few days we'll have our answer - along with the name of the new pope.  I'm excited not only to see who he is, but how it's covered.  Time will tell.

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