Tuned In

Will and Kate Colonize American TV, for a Morning

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Ben Stansall / AFP / Getty Images

Maybe the best weddings to be invited to are those thrown by distant but rich acquaintances. You get to attend the bash and enjoy the digs, but without the family drama or personal investment. Just so, the attraction of a British royal wedding, for an American audience, is that it’s a freebie. It may be the international celebration of a lavish party for privileged people, but it’s one that we didn’t have to pay for (if you don’t count all that tea and taxes a long time ago). It’s on someone else’s dime, in terms of both actual resources and postcolonial angst.

So for the British—whose coverage we also had access to via BBC America and some PBS stations—the wedding may have been about the travails of the monarchy, hope for the future, distraction from the present or redemption of the imperial past. For American TV networks, the marriage of William and Kate, was a chance to polish up their gilded on-screen graphics, dust off the fairytale metaphors and enjoy the theater of someone else’s royalty. With hats!

Oh, those spectacular hats. The Yank networks—right on down to every cable-news net and TLC—kicked off coverage around 4 a.m. ET this morning, with two hours to go to the wedding, which meant a lot of early red-carpet shots of the arrivals of guests with plumage and delicate satellite dishes aslant at impossible angles on their heads. (All but CBS, which began its morning with a lengthy replay of Charles and Diana’s wedding, while, incongruously, a chyron asked us to stay tuned to CBS News for “continuing live coverage.” Live coverage of 1981.) Side note: as my wife truthfully observed of the coverage, “There is no more undignified thing to be filmed doing than getting out of a car.”

The event also let the networks unveil the impressive collection of British personnel they’ve acquired over the years, on staff or as contributors. ABC had fashion commentary from India Hicks and miscellaneous cultural observations from Newsweek editor Tina Brown (“The whole of the British stiff upper lip suddenly comes unbuttoned at weddings”). NBC News had Martin Bashir on hand, while at (TIME’s corporate sister) CNN, Piers Morgan was earning his keep as staff Brit, offering gossip and chitchat about the notoriety of the wedding guests.

The advantage to having so much Brit talent on air was the ability to interpret and provide context for an American audience. (Whereas the BBC coverage, assuming an English audience, was more immersive; at one point, while a reporter interviewed a hyphenate National Hunt horseracing champion, I felt like I needed Yank subtitles.) The disadvantage was a certain loss of perspective about how actually important the wedding, and the monarchy, is outside the UK itself: tweeted Morgan, echoing his on-TV remarks, “One over-riding thought watching this magnificent occasion: The British Monarchy is BACK.” Well, back for the morning, at least.

It s true, though, that as a public act—this was no private event just for family—the wedding was very much a branding event for the Windsors, as much about how the family will be viewed in the future as about how perfect the day would be for the bride and groom. And the American TV corps sometimes seemed a little overawed, maybe partly because—as anchors referenced again and again—the legacy of Princess Diana hovered over the wedding.

It’s possible to appreciate the romance, beauty and simple emotion of the day and still keep the troubled history of the monarchy in mind, but it felt as if the Americans didn’t want to overstep their bounds as guests. This was especially true on the broadcast morning shows, which were stuck on a “smile and keep saying ‘fairy tale'” loop. Cable news was a little more jocular; CNN’s Anderson Cooper snarked about the royals being ferried to Westminster in “airport shuttle buses,” while Shepard Smith gave refreshingly laid-back play-by-play on Fox News: “Look at this flytrap thing on her face!” he exclaimed over one guest’s chapeau.

On the other hand, the BBC coverage—which caught the pageantry but still treated the wedding as a news event—was not as carried away by the “fairytale” narrative. (It also included many more enjoyable man-in-the-street interviews with jolly onlookers in Union Jack afros.) It was also much lighter on the over-the-top, garish graphics; American TV, apparently, uniformly decided that what signifies “royal” in screen graphics is using more cheesy-looking gold than a strip-mall jewelry store.

When the ceremony itself began, though, and Kate Middleton took to the aisle in a lovely—and seemingly endless—dress, the talking stopped and the dazzlement took over. There’s no screen graphic that can compete with the spectacle of Westminster Abbey’s gorgeous gothic architecture bedecked with red carpet and green potted trees, and the visuals of Kate’s four-minute walk down the aisle were, simply, regal. In a simple panorama, unadorned by chit-chat, it was a reminder of why it’s a small, good thing to watch a wedding, and to take vicarious pleasure in someone else’s love and good fortune—a rare enough thing on TV or anywhere.

After the ceremony, the networks went into chat-and-vamp mode as they waited for what Meredith Vieira referred to, bluntly, as “the money shot”: Will and Kate’s kiss on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. The new spouses’ first kiss delighted the crowd, but it was a blink-and-you-miss-it affair, and commentators vocally wished for something more telegenic. NBC re-ran the kiss in slo-mo, as if it were a controversial penalty call in a football game. On CBS, Katie Couric groused, “I don’t mean to be ungrateful, but that’s it?” Whether moved by the networks or the crowds or their hearts, the couple went for a do-over—longer, lippier—and all was right in the realm again.

The wedding was over, but the show was not: most of the networks had scheduled coverage going on later into the morning, which they used to rerun highlights, re-analyze the kiss and show parade video while talking over it. On MSNBC, Chris Jansing read the royal wedding menu (“Cornish crab salad, pressed duck terrine…”).

There were other things going on in the world, on this side of the pond, of course, and the networks paused a few times—briefly and awkwardly—to note that the South was still recovering from tornadoes that killed over 300 people this week. To his credit, NBC’s Brian Williams canceled his plans to cover the wedding to return home and cover the devastation. But aside from a few brief news breaks, there was little to be seen or heard from Alabama this morning, on his network or most other American TV news outlets. (And yes, I am well aware that time.com has the wedding splashed biggest of all on its homepage as I type this, and this very post is a part of that wall-to-castle-wall coverage.)

There was one news network here that was not carrying virtually nonstopwedding coverage, that you could turn to for reports on the devastation in America: al-Jazeera English (which most Americans, like me, would have to go online to see). On American TV news, for six-odd hours straight, it was a very British morning and a very happy one. Call that a case of unbalanced priorities or a well-deserved momentary escape from our troubles; but from the standpoint of the actual headlines of destruction at home (not to mention plenty of places abroad), that was a fairytale indeed.