Prince William and Kate Middleton don't say ''I do'' until April 29, but TV networks, paparazzi, and publishers are already racing to get their piece of the royal-wedding mania

By Archana RamKeith StaskiewiczTim StackStephan Lee and Jennifer Armstrong
Updated February 25, 2011 at 05:00 AM EST

”Waity Katie.” That’s what the British press has been calling Kate Middleton for years, tsk-tsking about how long it has taken for Prince William to pop the question. But that cheeky nickname may have had far more to do with the media’s impatience than anything Miss Middleton was feeling. After all — short of Brad and Angelina deciding to get married on the Capitol steps, inviting the public, and broadcasting a live feed to every major TV and online outlet available — William and Kate’s wedding will likely be the biggest celebrity nuptials of the century. ”They’ve been dating about eight years,” People managing editor Larry Hackett says, ”so I guess we’ve been waiting about seven.” When the prince takes his princess to be his bride on April 29 at Westminster Abbey, the press will also get its heart’s desire: a glamorous happening of international magnitude that’s all sweetness and light. No uprising, no scandal, no natural disaster, just young, blessedly telegenic love. Since the Nov. 16 press conference with the newly engaged couple, replete with blinding flashbulbs and followed by endless admiration (and knockoff replication) of Middleton’s royal blue Issa dress, the appetite for all things Kate and Wills has been insatiable — particularly in America. ”Americans are absolute suckers for royal weddings,” says Brit broadcaster and CNN host Piers Morgan. ”When Diana and Fergie got married, you guys lapped it up. Every tiny second that you could squeeze out of it, you squeezed.” This wedding promises to be no exception, a perfect storm of celebrity, opulence, romance. Every minor detail is already being dissected (the invitations! The wedding party! Did the Queen really keep Sarah Ferguson off the guest list?), and when April 29 arrives, expect real-time commentary from every media and social-networking platform imaginable. ”This is going to be not simply a big event granted access by news anchors and television,” says Robert J. Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. ”This is going to be a massive global conversation.”

Thirty years ago this July, more than 750 million people worldwide tuned in to see Lady Diana Spencer wed Prince Charles at St. Paul’s Cathedral. They came away with lasting memories: Diana’s 25-foot train splayed down the church aisle; the soft-spoken couple stumbling over their vows; Charles and Di kissing publicly — and against royal protocol — on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. The spectacle, and particularly Diana’s voluminous ivory silk gown, went on to define the idealized wedding for a generation of future brides.

The impact of the wedding of Charles and Diana’s first child will almost certainly be even bigger. While ratings for regularly scheduled programming have been on the decline because of audience fragmentation across an ever-multiplying slate of channels, big events have been garnering increasingly gargantuan viewership. This year’s Super Bowl, for example, marked the medium’s most watched U.S. broadcast of all time, with a staggering 111 million viewers. Why? There are now more television viewers than ever, and more ways to talk about a live event as it’s happening, via live blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and other sites. The Feb. 6 Super Bowl was referenced in 21 million status updates that day, while a record-setting 4,064 tweets were sent in one second in the game’s final moments. During President Obama’s inauguration, ”people loved the social aspect of watching a live event and commenting with people,” says Randi Zuckerberg, head of consumer marketing for Facebook, which generated 26.9 million online streams through its partnership with ”The same conversations that were happening in people’s living rooms were now taking place on a broader scale online. It was really making the world a smaller place.”

Okay, so viewers are definitely ready to turn on their TVs and laptops to watch and chat as Prince William, 28, marries Middleton, 29. Now all the network execs need to do is make sure those viewers are tuned to their channel come April 29 at 6 a.m. ET. (The ceremony will begin at 11 a.m. in London.) The major broadcast and news networks, along with E!, Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, and others, are deploying dozens of reporters and crew members, and are working to secure the best vantage points at Buckingham Palace and Westminster, and along the route in between. (Balconies on Methodist Central Hall and other buildings directly across from Westminster Abbey are proving to be hot properties.) They’re also angling to land the holy-grail interviews: the happy couple, of course, as well as Middleton’s parents, or anyone closely involved with the ceremony. ”We’re chasing the members of the wedding party, other members of their families,” says Linda Bell Blue, executive producer of Entertainment Tonight and The Insider. ”’Meet the Middletons’ is a great story. Who are her parents?” Adds Good Morning America senior executive producer Jim Murphy, ”Do we want to talk to the Queen about it? Sure. Is it likely to happen? No. But everybody’s trying.”

Today show executive producer Jim Bell will be sending his entire on-air team, led by Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira, who will work with NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams to provide wall-to-wall updates. Bell compares the level of coverage to that of the Olympics and the World Cup — which, by the way, both happen to be absent from the 2011 calendar, making the appetite for such a worldwide event that much greater. NBC has already scored one major coup — the exclusive behind-the-scenes documentary Inside the Royal Wedding from British producer Nick Bullen. While CBS made a play for the special, Bullen had already discussed giving the project to NBC with Doug Vaughan, the network’s senior VP of special programs. Bullen says, ”[Vaughan] asked first, and I wasn’t about to start double-dealing.” The special, which will air on April 27, will look at ”the supporting cast around the wedding,” from the dean of Westminster Abbey to invited guests to the troopers who ride in the procession.