News nets prep for possibility of rain

The weather forecast for London on Friday may upend months of planning on the part of some 8,000 journos and industryites who are expected to report for royal wedding coverage duty.

But rain or shine, the William and Kate show will go on, even if it means TV sightlines will be obscured by a forest of umbrellas and the happy couple will be forced to switch from an open-top to an enclosed carriage for the pre-show processional.

U.K. officials have estimated that viewership of the big event could reach as many as 2 billion viewers worldwide. The BBC will be the only broadcaster covering the ceremony inside Westminster Abbey, where it will have some 30 cameras. The Beeb has licensed its live fed to 40 broadcasters in 25 territories. It has by far the biggest team working the event: 550 staffers, 100 more than at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

The prospect of rain and even thunderstorms Friday is hardly the only challenge in wedding coverage faced by the U.S. news nets. Each is looking to differentiate its coverage provided by the same pool camera — which has pushed them to get creative in recruiting color commentators. They also have to make the most of an event that begins in the wee hours of Friday on the Yank clock, and hope that they can draw viewers to highlight specials in primetime later that night — after viewers have had ample time to peruse clips and photos online through countless outlets.

“The pictures will be remarkably similar on every network, and we have to offer better storytelling and better packaging,” said Marc Burstein, ABC News’ head of special events.

Burstein and others agreed that this event, even more than the dramatic breaking international news of the past few months, is a three-front war for screen time with viewers via TV, computer and mobile devices. Nets have had time to develop iPhone and iPad apps, to set up rain tents in case of the predicted showers, to schedule viewing parties, and to advertise their own coverage.

Technically, it’s a much more complicated endeavor than the 1981 wedding of William’s mum and dad, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. With the blossoming of the Web and social media platforms, every news org has to have its own dedicated Twitter feed and Facebook page for the event, along with slates of fashion programming and news coverage that work across platforms.

“We’ve never been able to integrate a story in the same way before,” Burstein said. “In 1981, people heard what the anchors thought of Diana’s dress.”

All the news nets are sending their heavy hitters to anchor hours of live coverage. ABC’s team is fronted by Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters. The nuptials will likely be Katie Couric’s last big stand for CBS, while NBC has marshaled Brian Williams, Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira, Natalie Morales, Al Roker and Ann Curry. Even Joe Scarborough of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” will originate from Trafalgar Square this week.

On cable, CNN is pushing its British anchors, especially Richard Quest and Piers Morgan, who spent more than a decade as editor of London tabloids that extensively covered the family and all its pecadillos.

“Clearly, Piers is an asset for us,” said CNN director of programming Janelle Rodriguez. “It’s that personal and professional experience with the royals that you can’t match. He doesn’t need to read in on the story.”

NBC is betting that its partnership with news provider, ITN, used by ITV and Channel 4 will give it an edge on the casual viewer. Every net will have the same feed from the ceremony at Westminster Abbey, but NBC and MSNBC will have a different angle on the carriage procession.

Mark Lukasiewicz, NBC News’ veep of specials and digital media, said he’s betting on the network’s wedding app (which includes a who’s-who for those who can’t tell Prince Andrew from Prince Edward) to generate buzz. The company saw some 10,000 downloads on Tuesday alone.

All in all, the Peacock has 20 hours of wedding-related coverage planned, and NBCUniversal’s cable networks are getting in on the act, too, especially Lauren Zalaznick’s Entertainment & Integrated Networks division. Bravo has set “Watch What Happens Live: Royal Wedding Spectacular” for Thursday at 11 p.m., and fashion cabler E! (a new addition to the NBCU stable) is covering live from London all week long.

Execs were cagey when it came to how, exactly, they planned to differentiate coverage because no one wants to tip their hand to a competitor. Even the titles of the highlight specials are a struggle to get noticed: CNN is offering “A Royal Wedding,” CBS has “The Royal Wedding: Modern Majesty,” while NBC’s is “Inside the Royal Wedding.” ABC’s extended “20/20″ special on Friday night dares to be different: “William and Catherine: A Modern Fairytale.”

Although the wedding coverage is a huge undertaking, news execs noted that their teams are relieved to be assembling for an event that should prove much lighter than unrest in the Middle East or devastation in Japan.

“We’ve had months where we’ve been working to cover some very serious stories around the world,” Lukasiewicz said. “The world is looking forward to something a little bit lighter to watch — something that involves a little British pomp and circumstance.”

ABC’s Burstein concurred.

“Almost everyone of a certain age remembers where he or she was when Diana died (in 1997). This is, in many ways, the happy ending to that story,” he said. “We saw the two boys walk behind her coffin, and now here we are 30 years (after their parents’) marriage, and that’s the reason that this is resonating with the audience.”

Royal wedding crashers

On TV:

Live coverage on the major U.S. news nets begins by 4 a.m. ET

BBC America’s simulcast of BBC coverage begins at 3 a.m. ET

ABC, CBS and NBC will run primetime specials with highlights

Online outlets include:

Live streaming at BBC.com/royalwedding from 5:45 a.m. ET-8:45 a.m. ET

YouTube’s The Royal Channel starting at 5 a.m. ET

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