Interest and uncertainty in Michael Jackson story continues to fuel a hungry media

By David Bauder, AP
Thursday, July 2, 2009

Media on standby for Jackson memorial plans

NEW YORK — The mysteries that continue to surround Michael Jackson’s death include a frustrating and potentially costly one for news organizations: how and when the fallen pop idol will be laid to rest and where a memorial service would be held.

A memorial is being planned, but not at Jackson’s former Neverland Ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif. Some news organizations had been privately planning for a Neverland viewing or burial on Friday, the beginning of a holiday weekend. Now plans are on hold and reporter vigils continue.

“It can be a little bit of a hassle,” said CBS News executive Susan Zirinsky. “But this is the funeral of a celebrity that has great interest. We’ll figure it out. This is not the same as a massive terrorist attack.”

There’s little indication that media interest is fading. Six days after Jackson’s death, it was still the lead story on all three network morning news shows. Even though its producer admitted to some doubts about it earlier Tuesday, a Katie Couric-anchored CBS News special won its time slot with 8.2 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.

CNN called it a “shocking change of plans” when a Jackson family spokesman said Wednesday there would be nothing at Neverland. The network said sources had been telling CNN that something was planned there for Friday.

In addition to upending plans, the announcement illustrated the difficulty in hunting for solid information in a competitive environment when it’s not really clear who has it. That was particularly evident when Matt Lauer interviewed Jackson family friend Al Sharpton on the “Today” show Wednesday, when Sharpton was unable to answer several questions because he’d been in New York for two days and away from the Jacksons.

On “The Early Show,” CBS reported on questions about the paternity of Jackson’s children with the Internet trio of Harvey Levin, Diane Dimond and Roger Friedman, who delivered contradictory information without naming sources, leaving the issue cloudier than when the story began.

One logistical advantage for networks is that they have sizable Los Angeles bureaus. Although ABC, for example, has sent a dozen or so extra people in for the story on an open-ended basis, it’s not like transporting large staffs into remote areas, said Kate O’Brian, senior vice president of news.

“As frustrating as it can be, we do this for a living,” O’Brian said. “So our folks are kind of used to it.”

CNN has sent Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta to Los Angeles for the story with no indication of how long they will be there. Larry King is already based there. MSNBC will use correspondent Chris Jansing as its chief correspondent and anchor the story from New York over the weekend, with staffing plans dependent on what the Jacksons decide, a spokesman said.

“I don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring on this story,” said Bart Feder, senior vice president of current programming at CNN. “I just know we’re going to be prepared for it.”

Two further indications that networks expect the story to have staying power: ABC News said its Friday “20/20″ will be devoted to Jackson, and CNN announced two weekend repeats of its Jackson documentary that already ran multiple times last weekend.

NBC’s Lauer headed across the country after Wednesday’s “Today” show for Neverland, where some fans have been conducting a vigil. He was given access to the grounds for Thursday’s show by the real estate company that now owns it, said Jim Bell, “Today” executive producer. Their competitors at CBS, “The Early Show,” have similar Neverland plans for Friday.

The release of Jackson’s will freshened the story on Wednesday. But Jackson still commanded attention on the morning shows even though there was less fresh news on the subject at the time; all three shows devoted their first 11 or 12 minutes to the story.

“Just as there were many different angles to his life, the story now in death is taking all kinds of angles, too,” Bell said. “Until there is some kind of resolution — the most basic being his burial — there will continue to be a high interest.”

“Today” ran a lengthy segment showing photos of Jackson and his children provided by a family friend. They noted how Jackson’s children frequently wore veils in public so they wouldn’t be recognizable — then showed several photos of the children without them. There also was film of a gleeful Jackson pushing a cart in a supermarket that has opened at midnight especially for him.

Zirinsky said CBS has been flooded with offers from people who wanted to sell Jackson pictures. There were so many she had to stop looking at them; because there was so much available the network had no need to overpay to license photos, she said.

She had experienced a brief “buyer’s remorse” Tuesday afternoon about convincing the network to run another prime-time hour on Jackson. But she said there was more than enough material, and the ratings proved people were still interested.

Even evening news broadcasts, which tend to drop these personality-oriented stories much faster than the morning shows, has kept interested.

“There is still a fascination on the part of a lot of people,” said Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC’s “World News.” ”You just have to look at the sales of his music to see. At some point this will diminish as a story, but there are a couple of things people are waiting for. They’d like to know what killed the man. And they’d like to spend a day at a memorial to remember him.”

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