The CBC’s coordination of the TV coverage of Pope John Paul II’s 12-day visit to Canada last fall, touted as the biggest media event of the decade, could have drawn considerable criticism. But most of the stations that had to rely on the public network were surprisingly uncritical. This harmony existed from the outset. When the pope’s plans were announced, the Department of External Affairs sought a network to coordinate coverage in conjunction with the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops. A series of meetings of representatives from TV networks and stations produced the consensus that the CBC was the best choice. Even the other obvious potential contender, CTV, the country’s largest private network, agreed. According to Henry Kowalski, a CTV producer, the job rightly fell to the CBC because it is the country’s public network.
Using a $12-million “special allocation” from the federal government, CBC created a separate “Host Broadcaster Unit” to be solely responsible for covering the papal visit. The corporation finished $1 million under budget.
To avoid creating a media circus, CBC adopted a “host first” approach. Its cameras were given “prime site locations” at each of 60 tour events, and daily visual summaries were made available to foreign and domestic broadcasters, known collectively as “unilateral broadcasters.” A fully equipped media centre, complete with monitors, transmission facilities and technical staff, coordinated the unilateral broadcaster’s activities at each of 13 major city sites; another 13 mini-centres were established at locations where the pope celebrated mass.
Despite the constraints the CBC’s approach placed on unilateral broadcasters, they seemed largely content with the way coverage was handled. George Szostak, a reporter with Hamilton’s CHCH-TV, afterward described it as “better done than in any other place the pope has ever visited.” CTV’s Kowalski also praised the CBC’s organization and product.
Kowalski’s only complaint was about the noncontroversial nature of the commentary that accompanied the visuals the CBC supplied, comparing it to the sort of coverage that usually is reserved for parades.
However, it can be argued that CBC’s bland approach was typical of commentary generally. Few media chose to challenge the pope’s more contentious statements during his visit. In the CBC’s defence, its supporters argue that viewers were primarily interested in seeing the tour, not hearing an analysis of it.
In the end, the CBC carried off the biggest public relations job in its history in a creditable manner, no doubt assuring its direct involvement in future blockbuster events.