Dispatch by John Arden

The ancient Roman buildings that surround the Vatican must be creaking under the strain of networks gearing up for the big story - the demise of the Pope.

As distasteful as it might seem to the layman, no serious journalist based in Italy could not have been making plans for what is clearly going to be a big story. So has the Vatican itself.

Pope jitters come and go as pope watchers report on the various stages of his aging process. Lately however, they've been reaching fever pitch, as the networks - American and European - struggle to ensure they won't be scooped when it finally happens.

I've made some calculations and can say quite safely that millions of dollars have already been spent. All the major networks have staked out terraces - laying out large sums to gleeful property owners or even to institutions which are close to, or part of, the Vatican itself. This is for the all-important view of the cupola - the essential backdrop for the stars, and for round table discussions as the two or three week story starts to lag.

Some big mistakes have been made already. Many of the terraces snapped up are so badly on the wrong side of the sun, that the Vatican itself becomes a black hole in the afternoon for much of the year. No amount of HMI or other lighting can put that right.

And living alongside the residents of these creaking structures is no joke. There have been violent arguments already between building owners and tenants. There has been litigation too. One productions company is fighting in the courts with the owners, who allege they engaged in illegal building alterations.

Then there's the question of uplink gear. No way can the networks rely on finding local uplink companies - especially in that first vital 24 hours - while platoons, divisions and whole armies of gear-laden tv journos crash in on sleepy Rome.

Some networks have laid out huge sums to put flyaways on rooftops - usually some of the more old fashion heavy sets that have become too cumbersome elsewhere. Others are relying on heavy cash offers to be made at the last minute to the few uplink companies around that might be willing to part with an SNG truck or a terrace armed with a transmission dish.

Official institutions have also participated in this frenetic activity, and even the Italian state electricity provider has jumped in, charging a special rooftop price for hapless SNG operators who need power that can't be turned off by angry residents.

The Vatican too has hardly stayed aloof. It has allotted at least two precious sites to its favorite sons before declaring that no Vatican territory can possible be used for such activity.

A few property owners have made very good money, but most had read too many inaccurate stories about the big spending Americans and held out, in vain, for the suitcases of dollars that never arrived.

As an independent uplink provider I can tell you that I wish I had never become involved in it. If someone gave me $20 for every lunch, dinner, meeting, site inspection and street walk I've done discussing this thing, I'd be a rich man. As it is, it has been nothing more than a gigantic waste of effort and most of my colleagues say that if they could turn back the clock they would do absolutely NOTHING and wait for it to happen.

Lately new rumors of a possible resignation have filled the local media. But anyone who knows the Pope know he won't and can't resign, even though he is finding it harder and harder to fulfill his duties. One simply can't have a Pope that goes gardening in a straw hat.

Our terrace, like so many others, is a never ending pit, forlornly watching over the cupola and providing the happy residents with an unending flow of funds for their pet building.

Of course none of them know what will hit them. None of them have ever seen a full network circus, let alone one with a six and twelve and eighteen hour time differences, where hysterical producers scream into their mobiles and at each other day and night, piercing lights shine through their curtains, satellite amps moan, cables drag down their walls. I fear for them.

In that sense, I dread the event, and sincerely wish the Pope a very long life.

John Arden

John Arden is an independent television journalist. His company Tiger Red specializes in documentaries and SNG (satellite news gathering). He has been watching the preparations at the Vatican for at least five years ñ and been making some of his own.

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