BOB GARFIELD: In Rome, the eyes of the world are focused on Pope John Paul II, now well into his 9th decade, and though he shows signs of Parkinson's disease and fatigue, his pace hasn't slowed much. In recent days, he told Vice President Cheney that the U.S. must work for peace, expressed alarm over the drop in French priests and called for more unity within the Catholic Church, and evidently, blessed break-dancing. But the world still awaits his demise, including two infamous British bookies who this month offered odds on the Pope's successor. Also waiting, as Megan Williams reported a year ago, are the media, and nothing much has changed.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: It's not something the Vatican or media outlets want to talk about, but for the past several years preparations for the pope's death have been moving along at a fast clip. Television networks from around the world have been caught in bidding wars for balconies that provide the prized shot of St. Peter's Square. [CHURCH BELLS AND ORGANS PLAYING] When the pope dies, the cardinals gather in the Sistine Chapel to elect a new one. Once he's chosen, a plume of black smoke lifting out of St. Peter's will turn white. This is to let the world know there's a new pope, and it's the shot that TV networks are willing to pay a lot of money for. Robert Mickens is a Vatican specialist. He's covered the pope for the past 10 years, much of that at Vatican Radio. Mickens says that all the nervous gearing up for the pope's death has been going on for about a decade, but with each passing year the tension increases, along with the price the networks are paying to secure a good shot of St. Peter's.
ROBERT MICKENS: Right from the very beginning -- I mean already back in '93 this whole thing - the death watch - started, and people - the news networks - big media started looking for spaces to do their setup for the whole event which is going to be a couple of weeks long -from the time he dies - the funeral - and then the conclave. Because I mean this is a whole package deal, and they want to be on site for that, so you've got people that already were paying a yearly deposit just to reserve a balcony or a rooftop of a nice hotel with St. Peter's in the background for that day when the pope is sick and dies so they can set up.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: Networks themselves won't disclose how much they're paying, nor will landlords who have been sworn to secrecy. But Tommaso DiBenedetti, a journalist for the Italian daily Il Mattino says that most of the balconies are going for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and one that directly overlooks St. Peter's Square has gone to a major U.S. network for a whole lot more.
TOMMASO DiBENEDETTI: One network pays 2 millions of dollars for 3 days of a balcony. The balcony is looking over St. Peter's Square. Cost -- 2 million dollars for 3 days. And that is - sure.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: But the preparations don't stop with location. Media networks are lining up Vatican experts to provide round the clock commentary during the funeral and conclave.
JOHN ALLEN: It will be near 9/11 in terms of levels of coverage. But not just in the States, but internationally. I mean it becomes the biggest story in the world for roughly a month. And, and obviously, you know, media outlets want to be ready for it.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: John Allen is author of the recently-published book called The Conclave. He's also just signed a hefty contract with CNN to be its commentator during the funeral and conclave. He says true Vatican experts like himself are few and far between. It's a difficult beat to cover. The Vatican is renowned for its arcane language and bureaucracy as well as blocking access to the media. So people like Allen who know their way around come at a premium.
JOHN ALLEN: I mean to put it crassly: we have a seller's market these days for Vatican expertise. Because, you know, people are obviously fascinated by the question of what might happen when this pope dies. Who might be the next pope and how will that pope get chosen and how does this mysterious centuries old process really work? And what are the politics, you know, beneath the smoke and mirrors? And so what it has meant is that I find myself much busier than I was at this time, say, two years ago.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: Not only are experts like Allen being called upon to comment. Most have lucrative book contracts. Allen himself will have to turn around a biography of the new pope within weeks. He says he's done his homework and isn't worried about pulling it off, but he is concerned about all the competition.
JOHN ALLEN: I can speak with confidence in the English-speaking world. Every publisher I know has someone lined up to do a biography of the new pope when it happens. So there will be a flood of these titles, and, and the logic there is there will be a few months when anything with the new pope's picture on it is going to fly off shelves.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: And a number of publishers have already hedged their bets by putting out books before the pope has died. Even John Allen has a section in The Conclave outlining the top contenders for the job. This is risky. Several on his list died as the book was being printed, and as Robert Mickens points out, so far this pope has defied the odds.
ROBERT MICKENS: And then the whole thing just - as, as his health has deteriorated, people have been making this guessing game. I think it's interesting that Peter Hebblethwaite wrote a book right around the same time called The Next Pope. Well, Peter Hebblethwaite died, [LAUGHS] and so-- I mean the pope should have wrote [sic] a book called The Next Hebblethwaite and it would have made more sense. [CLIP OF POPE GIVING MASS IN ST. PETER'S] [WITH RESPONSES FROM CONGREGATION] [CONGREGATION APPLAUDS AND CHEERS]
MEGAN WILLIAMS: For On the Media, this is Megan Williams in Rome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, election night coverage hints at the news, and if reality TV picked presidents.