The TV Biz: Networks go all out to cover royal wedding
Prince William and his bride-to-be Kate Middleton could never have had an intimate wedding. They’ve invited 1,900 guests, after all. But the British couple’s big day has set off a massive media frenzy rivaling the recent coverage of natural disasters, wars and government breakdowns combined.
There have been hundreds of hours of royal-themed TV programming already, with plenty more coming, including wall-to-wall coverage of the ceremony at historic Westminster Abbey.
Every major U.S. news organization plans to be there with its top talent April 29, from CBS’ Katie Couric, NBC News’ Brian Williams, ABC’s Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer to Fox News’ Shepard Smith and CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Piers Morgan. CNN alone will have at least 125 reporters on the ground in London to cover the story, and BBC America, having kicked off its 184 hours of royal reportage in December, will air a 51/2 -hour live, commercial-free broadcast on wedding day. (Much of the live wedding day coverage starts between midnight and 2 a.m. West Coast time, though the network news shows and many cable channels will re-air footage throughout the morning and the day.)
Frothier coverage is coming from likely suspects around the dial, such as nuptials-obsessed cable channels TLC, which has 89 hours of wedding-related shows, and Wedding Central. It’s also on tap from unexpected sources such as the Weather Channel (Al Roker will host “Wake Up With Al” all week from London starting April 25) and Game Show Network. Everyone from Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, who failed miserably in royal etiquette lessons on segments dubbed “My Fair Colbert,” to Kathy Griffin, Tori Spelling and Perez Hilton have staked out a piece of the Wedding of the Century.
It’s so relentless, it raises the question: Does anybody really need this much royal wedding coverage? And by the way, aren’t there radiation leaks, violent insurgencies and economic issues in dire need of media attention?
TV executives are quick to defend the massive manpower and airtime devoted to the prince and his future princess, since an early estimate by British Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt put the potential worldwide audience for the wedding at upward of 2 billion people, perhaps the largest viewership of any program in history.
“The world is looking for unifying events, happy occasions where we can celebrate together,” said Perry Simon, general manager of BBC Worldwide America. “These opportunities don’t come along very often.”
Trend watcher Jamie Gutfreund of Intelligence Group said the event will bring out the Anglophiles and the romantics. “Since we don’t have our own royalty, we’re still fascinated by the British royal family and we’re familiar with the players,” she said. “And there’s no downside to this story — it’s about people coming together in love to renew and rebuild a family.”
CNN’s Morgan, a self-proclaimed monarchist who’s known the royal family for two decades and will broadcast his talk show, “Piers Morgan Tonight,” from London the week before the wedding, said the royal event is “ratings and circulation gold.” “It’s two Super Bowls and an ‘American Idol’ finale,” he said. “For a few hours, people might not be thinking about all the terrible things going on in the world or in their lives. They’ll be cheering on this couple. I think we need stuff like that.”
Morgan said media honchos would be remiss if they didn’t respond to a wedding of this magnitude. “If 2 billion people watch, then the media coverage is in proper perspective,” Morgan said. “If only a half-billion watch, we’ve overdone it. But I think it’s going to be absolutely huge.”
There are always choices to be made, said Mark Lukasiewicz, vice president of NBC news specials and digital media, but the media conglomerate won’t scrimp on breaking news even as it focuses heavily on London with more than a dozen anchors and correspondents based there in the week leading to the wedding.
“You use your gut and your editorial judgment, and you try to bring the audience what it wants,” Lukasiewicz said. “We’re very flexible, and we hope very smart about allocating our resources. We don’t have to sacrifice one story to cover another.”
One of the few U.S. polls on the issue, a Vanity Fair/"60 Minutes” survey taken early this year, found that 65% of Americans said they didn’t care about the royal wedding. TV executives were quick to dismiss it, saying it doesn’t reflect their own internal fact-finding or consider the 750 million people who watched Charles and Diana’s wedding on many fewer media outlets that existed at the time.
“If 35% of Americans tune in, that’s still a pretty darn substantial event,” said Lukasiewicz, who put the NBCUniversal coverage on par with the largest-scale news and sports events of recent years. There will be more than a week’s worth of “Today” reports from London, “NBC Nightly News” based there starting April 27; MSNBC, Telemundo and “Morning Joe” London coverage every day of the wedding week; the Bravo special “Watch What Happens Live: Royal Wedding Spectacular” airing April 28 and featuring several “Real Housewives” stars — plus, of course, the live wedding broadcast.
There are few networks that aren’t carving off a piece of this event and trying to make it their own. Comedian Kathy Griffin decided to host a special for TV Guide Network because execs there wanted a saucy take on the wedding. “It seems like a lot of journalists are treating this like a State of the Union address,” Griffin said. “I’ll be looking for that person in the wedding party who gets drunk and falls out of an old-fashioned taxi cab. There’s got to be that errant cousin or aunt who goes too far.”
Griffin said she and her guests, including Jackie Collins and comedians the Sklar brothers, will watch the wedding live at her house, outfitted with multiple screens “like Wolf Blitzer’s ‘Situation Room,’” before taping the special. “We’re just going to make fun of the whole thing,” she said. “I’m excited about this wedding — I’d be more excited if William were marrying Lindsay Lohan or Christina Aguilera, but Kate is the woman who knocked Kim Kardashian off of magazine covers. This is big!”
TLC, home to a number of successful wedding-related franchises like “Say Yes to the Dress,” has taken an “all hands on deck” approach. Brent Zacky, the channel’s vice president of development, said his audience’s general wedding mania and his own three princess-crazy young daughters persuaded him to go full bore around Will and Kate’s big day.
“We’ve all grown up with fairy tales, and here we have Kate, who’s a commoner, and William, who’s the son of a beloved princess,” Zacky said. “A lot of Americans feel a connection to William, like we did to JFK Jr.”
William, the elder son of the late Princess Diana and Prince Charles, was just 15 when his mother died in a car crash. At the tony St. Andrews University in Scotland, he began an on-again off-again relationship with Middleton, the daughter of working parents from a small village called Bucklebury.
There will be few royal-wedding-free zones on TV, except, of course, the heavily male-skewing networks. (ESPN won’t preempt the NFL draft, in other words.) Disney Channel will air a princess movie marathon, Game Show Network will build a week’s worth of “Newlywed Game” around royal themes, and the Food Network will put royal icing on its cake-centric competition shows. Wedding Central and its parent, WE TV, are planning a “royal extravaganza,” while Lifetime and Hallmark Channel both went the made-for-TV movie route. Oprah Winfrey’s OWN is taking a break from its regular programming to launch two 90-minute royal wedding specials.
And if you happen to be away from the telly, networks and cable stations have launched innumerable Facebook pages, microsites, Twitter feeds, social media check-ins with services like GetGlue and live streams so you won’t miss a moment of royal hubbub.
Rich Lorich and Holly Passalaqua, two Los Angeles residents who were contestants on a BBC America show called “Royally Mad” that took a handful of monarchy-worshipping Americans to walk in the royals’ footsteps in London, said they’re not surprised at the glut of programming.
“It’s great escapism,” said Lorich, a flight attendant. “It’s fun, it’s glamorous, it’s a step back in time when things were much more dignified and formal. People who don’t care about this wedding are just bitter and hateful and jaded.”
Passalaqua, a blogger who wears a replica of Middleton’s engagement ring and named her rescued cats Prince William and Prince Harry, plans wall-to-wall wedding viewing, declaring April 29 her own personal holiday. “This is not just another wedding,” she said. “After everything that’s happened in William’s life, this is his chance at a fairy tale ending.”
Morgan suggested that a romantic spectacle like William and Kate’s wedding will be able melt even the iciest heart. “Everyone’s waiting for the kiss on the balcony,” he said, “and the whole world will go, ‘Ahhhhhhh.’”
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