NEW YORK – After more than two decades in which Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather told television viewers nearly every major story, none of the men played a part in Saturday’s special coverage of Pope John Paul II’s death.

Brokaw and Rather had stepped down as the NBC and CBS chief anchors during the past five months, and Jennings was out sick Saturday.

The pope’s death was something for which networks had been preparing for years and, more recently, anticipated as the pope’s conditioned worsened over the past few days.

CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC had been essentially holding an electronic vigil since late Thursday.

ABC aired two hours of coverage immediately after the death was announced, NBC had 90 minutes and CBS 30 minutes.

“About half the world’s people have known no other pope in their lifetime,” NBC’s Brian Williams said. “Any man in that position would have left a mark, but we are talking about an extraordinary world activist.”

Williams replaced Brokaw last November, and NBC had the most complete “A” team of any of the broadcasters Saturday. He anchored from New York, Matt Lauer was in St. Peter’s Square and Tim Russert told anecdotes and showed pictures from his meeting with the pope.

Networks all had detailed stories prepared to outline how the pope will be replaced; ABC had an artist’s drawings similar to those from a courtroom where cameras were not allowed.

ABC’s coverage was anchored by Bob Woodruff. Jennings, who had anchored “World News Tonight” the night before, was in New York but has not been feeling well and wanted to be ready for the coming days of coverage, spokeswoman Cathie Levine said.

George Stephanopoulos was in Rome, as was Cokie Roberts, who told of a meeting she and her husband once had with the pope. “We really did have the sense that we were in the presence of holiness,” she said.

ABC’s cameras lingered on scenes from Rome – candles burning, illuminated statues, mourning faithful. The network kept Woodruff largely out of sight, perhaps not to remind viewers of Jennings’ absence.

In the midst of a transition period after Rather stepped down last month, CBS’s coverage was anchored by Thalia Assuras. Bob Schieffer was in Washington preparing for Sunday’s “Face the Nation.”

CBS’s initial coverage was shorter than its rivals by at least an hour, as the network returned to a Final Four pregame show. With the games scheduled, CBS was also the only one of the three broadcasters not to have a prime-time special on the pope Saturday, although a one-hour special was prepared and sent to CBS affiliates if they wanted to show it after the games, spokeswoman Kelli Edwards said.

“We felt that we showed a solid 30 minutes of thought-provoking, forward-looking coverage,” Edwards said.

Shepard Smith anchored Fox News Channel’s coverage from Rome, 26 hours after the network’s embarrassing faux pas of declaring the pope dead based on an erroneous report. Fox featured an interview with one of its top executives, John Moody, a former Time bureau chief in Rome and biographer of the pope.

“Death to John Paul II was seen as a gateway to paradise,” Moody said. “He has now been admitted through that gateway. I’m sure he’s looking at us with that great smile saying what he has always said, “be not afraid.”‘

Aaron Brown was in Rome for CNN, which simulcast its international network in the United States for the hours preceding the pope’s death. Its cameras showed tearful young people mourning the Polish pope in Krakow, Poland.

Lester Holt anchored MSNBC’s coverage, with Chris Matthews in Rome.

Many of the networks planned special coverage on Sunday, with Lauer, Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer, Charles Gibson and John Roberts doing unusual weekend work in the morning. “60 Minutes” will also show reports on the pope, CBS said.

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