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‘Rock Star’ Pope Francis’ U.S. Tour This Week Earns Stations’ Full Attention

Stations Brace for ‘Logistical Nightmare’ of Covering Pope Francis Visit

It’s always a big deal when the Pope visits the United States — and Pope Francis is no ordinary pope.

“The guy’s a bit of a rock star,” says Rich J. Graziano, WPIX New York president and general manager. “I can’t even come up with a word ... it’s huge. He’s made being Catholic back in style again.”

Since the moment last fall when Pope Francis announced his U.S tour, news stations in Washington, D.C., New York City, Philadelphia (DMA Nos. 8, 1 and 4, respectively) and beyond have been planning their coverage. His three-city visit, from Tuesday through Sunday, Sept. 27, will include a meeting with President Obama at the White House, a speech in front of a joint session of Congress, an address at the United Nations General Assembly, a service at the 9/11 Memorial, a motorcade through Central Park and a trip to Independence Mall.

“In our minds, there will not be a bigger story in the City of Philadelphia this year,” says Ric Harris, president and general manager of NBC owned-and-operated station WCAU, noting that when the World Meeting of Families gathers in the U.S. for the first time on Sept. 27, it will be in Philadelphia. “Our coverage will spare no expense.”

But with so many stations covering the papal visit, advertising “wall-to-wall coverage” and buying into the same pool coverage, standing out is a challenge.

Extending and adding newscasts and preempting syndicated programming are almost a given to cover the historic visit. Stations in one market will pool resources and carry live news from another, whether it be WABC New York airing coverage from the ABC stations in the other two cities or Hearst’s Washington bureau sharing video from the trio of cities throughout its station group.

In Philadelphia, NBC-owned WCAU will air the big events, with portions on its Telemundo duopoly station and everything on its Cozi TV digital subchannel. Fox’s WTXF will have coverage all weekend save for a Saturday afternoon baseball game and NFL coverage Sunday. “It has a direct impact to anyone living in, or around the city,” says Bernie Prazenica, president and general manager of ABC-owned market leader WPVI.

Dave Davis, WABC New York president and general manager, says the ABC-owned station will be prepared to cover anytime the Pope is out in public in the city that the network itself doesn’t cover — “Whenever he’s out, whatever time.”

CBS’ New York duopoly of WCBS and WLNY is sending anchors to D.C. and a reporter to Philadelphia, while CBS’ Philadelphia duopoly of KYW and WPSG is sending reporters to D.C. and New York.

Time Warner Cable is providing customers the “Papal Visit Channel,” a special temporary channel with 24/7 coverage of the visit from its NY1 local news network. The TWC Local on Demand channel will also have a special “Papal Visit 2015” category, with religious documentaries, a compilation of films from TWC News and reports on Pope Francis’s background and papacy, plus past U.S. visits from previous Popes. While it’s mostly a NY1 endeavor, the “Papal Visit Channel” coverage comes from 17 TWC channels from across the country.

Steve Paulus, senior VP of news and local programming, says the secondary TWC channel, which was picked up by Bright House and Cablevision, gives its stations flexibility and takes away any pressure to focus on the papal visit instead of local news. “It helps us when programming regular news content, and at the same time not shortchange the viewers interested (in the visit),” he says. “It’s the best of both worlds for us.”

In addition to the normal pool coverage and their supplements, including live shots, man on the street interviews, reaction shots and analysis, the channel will offer a Pope-centric version of The Call, its weeknight live hourlong call-in show and an in-depth nightly review program of the day’s events before airing repeats of the coverage overnight. The Call, an interactive program during which viewers send emails, tweets and Facebook comments, is going national for the week. “Pope Francis does not shy away from being controversial,” Paulus says. “This is an opportunity for people to comment on what he did or how he did it.”

Not just expansive and continuous, the papal coverage, across the board, also has depth and variety.

Fox’s WNYW in New York has produced nearly 30 stories about the visit’s significance, while Fox’s WTTG in D.C. is looking at angles of interest for non-Catholics. Telemundo 47 in New York has aired interviews with the day laborers who built the Pope’s chair for his Madison Square Garden Mass.

Local bishops, priests, deacons and other Catholic Church representatives will join CBS anchors in New York and Philadelphia.

WPIX’s Graziano says the Tribune-owned CW affiliate is filtering its coverage by focusing on New Yorkers’ emotional connection with the Pope and his message. “We’re getting stories of New Yorkers, how this visit is affecting them and their lives and their families,” says news director Amy Waldman. “It’s not just about where the Pope is going; it’s the actual impact he’s making on people’s lives.”

Back in early August, NBC’s WCAU Philadelphia and Telemundo’s WWSI aired “The People’s Pope,” a special that came from a week that reporters Jim Rosenfield (NBC10) and Ramon Zayas (Telemundo62) spent in the Pope’s homeland of Argentina to interview the former Jorge Bergoglio’s childhood friend, biographer and former coworkers.

The 30-minute special was rebroadcasted multiple times in the weeks leading up to the Pope’s U.S visit, but they have “plenty more to share” from their international reporting, says GM Harris. “Given the fact that as a media organization we are combination of English language television and Spanish language television, no one is going to cover the story like we have nor like we will when the Pope arrives,” he says.

The first station to travel to Buenos Aires for the occasion, WCAU also sent a crew to the Pope’s current home in Rome.

It’s not just stations in the New York, Washington and Philadelphia areas. For instance, NBC’s WTVJ South Florida station sent its news anchor to Cuba to cover the Pope’s pre-U.S. visit there. Since the Pope is slated to canonize Junipero Serra, from California’s Central Coast, Hearst’s NBC affiliate KSBW-TV, the market leader in Monterey and Salinas, will join the contingent traveling with the Pope, along with Hearst stations in Boston, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Lancaster-Harrisburg, Pa. The CBS owned-and-operated stations in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Pittsburgh are also sending reporters to cover the visit.

It seems that papal visit coverage will feature everything viewers could ever dream of — well, almost everything.

“We asked him for an exclusive interview,” says WPIX’s Graziano. “We haven’t heard back yet.”