Tiny Vatican TV controls footage shown worldwide of pope's death

ROME — The barrage of news footage covering the death of Pope John Paul II that is being beamed around the world comes, surprisingly, from just one source.

All TV images shot within Vatican walls are handled by the Holy See’s small but powerful TV production arm, the Vatican Television Center (CTV).

Headed by Father Federico Lombardi — a Jesuit who is also programming chief of Vatican Radio — CTV was set up in 1983 to help John Paul II become the first pontiff in synch with the demands of the modern media age.

CTV is a content provider, not a broadcaster. But, at the Vatican, exclusivity does not mean lack of exposure.

“We have been shown much more than we ever expected,” says Caro Kriel, managing editor of newsgathering for Associated Press Television News (APTN). “They are producing some memorable images of one of the biggest stories in the world.”

Just 15 hours after the Pope passed away on April 2, CTV cameramen were shooting his private wake, beaming images of the body live via satellite from the Apostolic Palace, breaking with a centuries-old custom under which the ritual had been kept rigorously private.

“The Pope did not want to make his suffering private,” says Elena Pinardi, Rome coordinator of the European Broadcasting Union, the umbrella org for European webs. “But of course it’s the higher prelates, not CTV, who decides what gets covered and what does not,” the veteran papal-content producer adds.

Among top Vatican spin doctors are CTV’s founder, American archbishop John P. Foley, head of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and the Pope’s Spanish press secretary, Joaquin Navarro-Vals, a former journalist and medical doctor.

CTV is an integral part of the Vatican’s media holdings, which, besides Vatican Radio, also include the separately managed TV station TelePace, newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, the Fides news agency, and website www.vatican.va.

Yet while the Holy See is acutely aware of the media’s power, CTV is still a low-budget operation run by less than a dozen employees, including its director of production Roberto Romolo, who is a layman, and a handful of cameramen specialized in shadowing the Pope with discretion and agility.

On large events, CTV often works in tandem with Italian pubcaster RAI, with which it co-produced coverage of the Pope’s funeral April 8.

Located in cramped offices on Vatican City’s Via del Pellegrino — the same street as the papal living quarters — CTV has stayed true to its stated mission “to contribute to spreading the universal message of the Gospel,” according to its statute.

CTV’s satellite feeds are sold basically at cost, while material from its well-stocked archives is moderately priced.

But the price is tailored to the buyer’s ability to pay. For instance, news footage supplied to a TV station with limited resources might be free. For documentary use, world rights cost e700 ($900) a minute, reasonable compared with RAI’s rates of $2,575 a minute.

In 2003, CTV struck an agreement with APTN for international distribution of a portion of its archive footage. Deal prevents APTN from reselling material the wire service was taking from CTV’s feeds, according to sources.

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