Papal Conclave: Most Reported News Event in History?

Stefan Dal Pozzolo/Vatican Pool for Getty Images

Before a visit by Pope Benedict XVI to the U.S in 2008, Maher called the church "a child-abusing religious cult" whose leader "has a compound," "operates outside the bounds of the law," "used to be a Nazi and wears funny hats."

All the world is watching while 115 elderly cardinals meet inside the Sistine Chapel to select the successor to Pope Benedict XVI.

VATICAN CITY – What promises to be one of the most closely monitored news events in history got underway Tuesday, with 115 cardinals gathering in the Sistine Chapel to select the successor to Pope Benedict XVI. More than 5,000 journalists have descended on the Eternal City to capture any news the moment it happens.

The cardinals will vote once on Tuesday and then up to four times a day after that until a single candidate manages to garner a two-third majority of those voting, meaning the backing of 77 cardinals. After each vote, the paper ballots will be burned after being treated with a special chemical mix that will make the resulting smoke either black (meaning the vote failed to select a new pope) or white (meaning a pontiff has been selected).

And every moment of the period between now and then will be immortalized by hundreds of television cameras trained on the Sistine Chapel chimney -- and just about everywhere else nearby.

“There is little doubt that this will be one of the most closely watched events of any kind, ever,” said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi.

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Vatican Television alone says it has 17 television cameras focused on St. Peter’s Basilica, the Pauline Chapel and the Sistine Chapel, with another dozen pointed at the Sistine Chapel chimney, one of them bolted to the roof itself -- only a few feet away from the chimney to catch the first poof of white smoke in high-definition detail. In a statement, the Holy See’s official broadcaster said it is focusing on “the appearance and richness of the images” it will capture.

Not to be outdone, Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset said it would provide minute-to-minute coverage of the process that is mostly an exercise of sitting and waiting until the first view of the white smoke. State broadcaster RAI and Sky-Italia, a unit of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., also have strong presences in the square, as do television media from at least 75 other countries, according to Vatican officials.

Following the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005, the conclave that elected Benedict took four votes over two days to reach the required majority. But historically, most conclaves have lasted longer.

The Vatican said that as of Tuesday, in addition to its permanent press corps of around 400 reporters and photographers, at least 4,700 additional media personnel have already been temporarily credentialed for the conclave. That already surpasses the numbers of reporters from the 2005 conclave, and dwarfs any previous Vatican media event.

Social media has also been abuzz with the developments, with a dozen different Vatican-related topics trending on Twitter Tuesday, according to Italian news media.