Pope: NBC’s Chartered Plane Awaits…

By Brian 

Conversations with four NBC insiders have painted the following portrait of preparations for the passing of Pope John Paul II — and it goes without saying that every network is making similar plans:

On Thursday evening, NBC staffers were mobilized, as additional producers and resources were moved to Italy. Post-Nightly News conference calls determined that Brian Williams will stay in NYC until there are further developments. NBC consultant George Weigel, a Roman Catholic theologian, is also on standby to fly to Rome.

NBC has chartered a plane to whisk staffers to Rome at a moment’s notice. On Friday morning, the network decided to send the plane tonight, an insider says. The belief seems to be that the world could hear the funeral music at any time.

For Matt Lauer, the last 24 hours have been grueling: After hosting three hours of ‘Today’ on Thursday, he hosted a new, Schiavo-dead opening for the West Coast. When word of the Pope’s condition broke, Lauer headed to the airport — but was told to come back. Then the plan changed again: By 11pm, NBC expected Lauer to host ‘Today’ from the Vatican tomorrow, assuming he arrived on time.

Each network has a detailed plan for coverage of the Pope’s passing. When the news comes, crews will travel to Rome and locations across America. Many NBC staffers will work extra hours at 30 Rock.

Executive producer for special projects Mark Lukasiewicz will lead the coverage from 30 Rock. Executive director Phil Alongi is already stationed in Rome. (Alongi has said previously that “we’ll have in excess of 100 people coming to Rome for the story.”)

Staffers are ready for a long month of coverage. Coverage is expected to be wall-to-wall at first, followed by a break until the Conference of Cardinals. After another round of extended coverage, the world will await the puffs of white smoke.

Decisions about the coverage will come from the highest levels. For instance, it’s safe to assume that Tom Touchet won’t be calling the shots on ‘Today:’ Neal Shapiro, Jeff Zucker and Bill Wheatley will take the lead.

The coverage will continue on cable. MSNBC will broadcast nonstop live coverage. Keith Olbermann will lead long-form primetime coverage, while Chris Matthews will report from Rome. Expect Chris Jansing to play a significant role, as well.

“There will be the inevitable celebration of one of the great figures in history and all he accomplished in a historic papacy,” MSNBC VP Mark Effron told Variety on Thursday. “We will be spending a good amount of time looking at that.”