The work began in earnest over the weekend. More than 80 staffers flew in. Cameras and microphones were checked. Positions were readied for guest reporters like Joan Rivers and local play-by-play analysts like Viscount Charles (Champagne Charlie) Althorp.
Thus did NBC's "Today Show," the "CBS Morning News" and ABC's "Good Morning America" gird themselves for a three-day Battle of Britain, a ratings war from London that began this morning and is costing at least $1,000,014.50.
They are doing all this because two people are getting married.
It does help, though, that the wedding is a royal one, full of pomp, circumstance, and featuring Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. They will exchange vows Wednesday in Westminster Abbey. All three networks and Cable News Network will air the ceremonies live.
But reveille will come early for royal-wedding buffs on the West Coast. The live telecasts of the networks and CNN start at 2:30 a.m. PDT and end at 6 a.m., save for NBC, whose live coverage will last 30 minutes longer.
After that, the network morning shows will recap the wedding with taped highlights and commentary as part of their regular two-hour programs.
CNN's on-air wedding-day crew is not huge. London bureau chief Richard Blystone will be the sole anchor, working with guest analyst Ingrid Seward, editor of Britain's Majesty magazine. Reporters Mike Chinoy and John Donvan will be on the streets, seeking the views of Londoners on the meaning of it all.
"Today," on the other hand, has dispatched the largest network delegation for the preliminaries and Wednesday's nuptials--40 staffers led by co-anchors Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley (Willard Scott also is on hand and, among other things, reporting from London on how the weather is in the United States).
Their guest commentators include the Viscount Althorp, the brother-in-law of Prince Charles; Robert Lacey, a biographer of Prince Charles, and Tina Brown of Vanity Fair, a magazine for and about the smart set, real and imagined. NBC's coverage costs may be the highest--an estimated $700,000.
ABC's "Good Morning America," said to be spending $300,000 to cover the royal show, has dispatched an 18-member crew. But folksy David Hartman is not with them. He is on a week's vacation planned months ago, says ABC, adding that his absence is unrelated to his current talks with the network about a new contract.
While he vacations, his co-anchor, Joan Lunden, and newsman Steve Bell are hosting the royal telecast from London, bolstered by contributions from Rivers; actress Jane Seymour; British gossip guru Nigel Dempster and producer-performer David Frost.
The 25-member delegation from the "CBS Morning News," led by co-anchors (until September) Forrest Sawyer and Maria Shriver, has as its guest observers actors Roger Moore and Jeremy Irons; historian Lady Antonia Fraser, and novelist Frederick Forsythe.
No estimate was available on how much CBS is paying for its expedition. But one source, no doubt jokingly referring to CBS' cost-cutting efforts and recent wave of layoffs, insists that "it's $14.50, People Express all the way, and they're staying in tents."
Wednesday's big do and the warm-ups are being chronicled by print and broadcast journalists from around the world, with British press authorities last week reporting nearly 700 requests for accreditation to the main event and supporting acts.
But it's just a wedding, albeit one a tad more lavish than most. Why must the American networks, which went bonkers over the perhaps more significant Prince Charles-Lady Di union of 1981, do it again with Prince Andrew and Fergie, as the Brits call the bride-to-be? One gentle explanation from "Good Morning America" executive producer Phyllis McGrady: "Because it's a royal wedding and it's better than 'Dynasty.' "
"They're getting married while we're on, and the least we can do is to show up," solemnly explains "Today" executive producer Steve Friedman. "I think it's also a creature of timing. Here you are at the end of July with not much going on, and it's probably going to be the biggest event of the week.
"Also, it's made to order for morning television--a spectacle, a live happening. The Royal Wedding I, as we call it, did so well for us in 1981 that we thought, 'Why not again?' "
The royal-wedding coverage by the networks is a far cry from the relatively modest efforts by NBC and ABC in 1973, when Princess Anne and Capt. Mark Phillips plighted their troth.
Back then, the "CBS Morning News" went all out, sending over a large crew and its then-new anchor team of Hughes Rudd and Sally Quinn. "Today" only dispatched one star, Barbara Walters, while ABC relied on its London bureau chief, George Watson.
CBS had a booth overlooking Westminster Abbey, recalls Watson, now ABC bureau chief in Washington. But the ABC-NBC arrangements were less lavish: "I remember that Barbara and I were on two sides of a movable partition at the BBC, doing the thing off a TV monitor."
Watson, who never was seen on camera but still got high marks from some critics for his witty, learned play-by-play, amiably groused that not only was his setup demeaning, "it was annoying, because I could hear Barbara and she could hear me."
Why has the coverage by all three networks escalated so much? It's probably because the networks "have discovered that the audience has an almost unlimited appetite for royal wedding pomp and circumstance, romance and so forth," Watson theorized.
But Wednesday's I-dos may be the last such hurrah for the networks and public for at least a generation. There now seems a distinct shortage of candidates for a televise-able royal wedlock, Watson noted, "unless we go to the minor Continental royalty."
And that prospect, he said, may be slightly to the left of whoopee: "I mean, the Scandinavians ride bicycles, for God's sake, to those things. There's no romance in that at all."