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Kind of like 'Top Chef,' but with holy smoke

Aye, it's the age-old story. Oh the naming of a new pope, sure, but there's another less-age-old story: TV networks covering something that their anchors and reporters call a glorious spectacle and then ruining the spectacle with superfluous graphics littering the screen.

CBS News showed the most visual restraint (and dignity), and ABC tied with CNN in showing the least, in coverage from the Vatican of the big event: Pope Francis I -- formerly Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina -- taking over after his predecessor suddenly retired, the Catholic world having muddled along popelessly for only a short period as cardinals deliberated behind extremely closed doors.

We kept hearing from the assembled journalists that there are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, but when it's pope-choosing time, the whole world is Catholic -- or at least it seems that way (it also seems that way whenever they show "Going My Way" or "The Bells of St. Mary's" with Bing Crosby as Father O'Malley on TCM, and why the Church hasn't sainted Bing by now, I will never know).

You're compelled to watch even if the selection of the pope will have little or no impact on your life; it's a rare kind of ecumenical event.

Diane Sawyer and ABC News colleagues high-tailed it to Rome earlier in the week for coverage with all-stops-out, whereas NBC's Brian Williams, most literate of all network anchors, stayed in New York and watched the proceedings on a big screen in the studio. We don't have figures, but obviously more of us were watching on big screens of our home at home than was true the last time a new pope was announced, and more had access to beautiful high-def pictures of the event.

It's especially unfortunate, then, that the screen had to be cluttered up with junk from the networks' computer graphics departments, but obviously viewers "just tuning in" have to be told what they're watching and from where. Clicking around among the networks, the on-screen headlines were different but the same once the white smoke had emerged, the traditional signal that a new pope has been named.

"New Pope to Emerge Any Moment," promised the headline on CNN during the long hour's lag (long in terms of air time) between the holy smoke and the appearance of the new pontiff. "New Pope to Appear Momentarily," said NBC. "Awaiting Announcement of New Pope's Name," said an impatient ABC. "New Pope to Appear Shortly," CBS said hopefully.

In addition to such essentially essential information, though, ABC and CNN ran a lot of typographical gingerbread across the bottom of the screen, just to impose movement on a technically static picture, and increasingly, the bottom of the screen became the bottom HALF of the screen as clutter conquers all. The more acreage that's surrendered to the captions and ticker-tape headlines, the more frustrating it is to watch.

Television is obviously a great visual medium for storytelling, and yet there are few sights more common in newscasts, national and local, than correspondents standing in front of a catastrophe or other news event and telling you what you'd be able to see if they'd get out of the way. "Behind me, aliens from Venus have landed in a gigantic flying saucer trimmed in monkey fur." Whatever.

Yes, I've been bemoaning such facts of life for many years, in one venue or another, and there's never been a sign that it's done any good. But someone has to decry the madness! Or, uh, if it's not madness, it's at least tacky.

The overall look of graphics on TV has tremendously improved. It used to be, back in the three-network era, that CBS was always admired for its graphics -- from the world's greatest logo, the Eye, to network promos and various displays and even an annual animated Christmas card -- and everybody else was an also-ran. Now, thanks in part to the spread of computers with enormous capacity for fancy graphics, and increased sophistication by those who operate them, good graphics are taken-for-granted and common.

How ironic then that ABC News graphics manage to look so crappy. Just big and ugly and intrusive, as was the case again yesterday (I know it's a small detail, but could they possibly have picked out a clunkier typeface for the nightly "World News" and other ABC News shows than the one they've got?). The network had to go out of its way to look bad.

The faces of the faithful gathered at St. Peter's were, of course, more important than type faces in coverage of the pope show. Directors sensibly cut from big wide shots of the scene to individual portraits of people in the crowd. Networks showed enterprise in getting the faces of their own correspondents on the screen amid such a huge surging throng, with some correspondents' faces lit up as if by hand-held flashlights and visible in the dark from considerable distances.

Unfortunately for ABC's David Wright, somebody had brought a huge flag along and it managed to unfurl right in front of his face, so all the light in Rome couldn't have helped him.

Each network had put out the call to round up the usual suspects -- that is, find a Catholic expert to be on-hand so that arcane aspects of the rituals could be explained to viewers. These spokespeople tend to be cheerleaders for Catholicism, but there's no reason they should have to fake objectivity. On ABC, Archbishop Wilton Gregory was ready with encomiums to the new pope immediately upon his first appearance: "He is truly a holy man, a humble man!" But then what else can they say -- "he seems like a nice guy"?

In fact, he did seem like a nice guy when it came time to speak to the crowd. He talked in relatively conversational terms, and even told the huge mass of people to go home and have a nice night -- setting "a completely different tone" for a pope, as Mark Phillips noted on CBS.

ABC's Cecilia Vega was more succinct if perhaps too informal when she gushed simply, "Wow!"

Wow, we got us a hip pope!

Oddly, a CNN anchor kept hedging about the identity of the new pope even after every other network had stated it as a matter of fact. "We believe" the new pope is from Argentina, the anchor said, adding that he is "named Francis, we believe, according to Italian television." According to Italian television? How about according to American television, where by this time it was a stated certainty. Except for CNN, that is.

For the most part, American television did a respectable and respectful job, and there didn't seem to be an excess of chatter about various Catholic scandals of the past several years. Of course, when they have an hour of time to fill with nothing happening -- and not much to show except a photograph of an empty balcony onto which the new pope would eventually stride -- they can be forgiven for reaching for whatever's handy.

Even a skeptic, perhaps even a cynic, could watch the telecast and feel impressed by its immensity and yet also feel basically unmoved. But when the new pope himself spoke, and when he recited traditional prayers from that balcony, and when cameras showed faces of the faithful bowed in humility and praying with him, the screen seemed to glow with a virtually holy light.

And now, back to our regular programming....

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