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The biggest TV event of the year has begun

Published November 21, 2003

Forget George W. Bush in London. Forget the deaths of 27 people from a terrorist bomb in Turkey. And especially forget about riots at the free trade conference in Miami.

The news story of the day Thursday could be summed up in three words.

Michael. Jackson. Busted.

Over several hours Thursday, cable news outlets and Court TV feasted on the pop star's surrender after a warrant was issued for his arrest on child molestation charges in Santa Barbara, Calif. The continuous coverage started before his plane touched down in California and was capped by the singer, in handcuffs, on his "perp walk" from a vehicle into the county jail.

"It's a strange experience. . . . We're in the middle of all these important stories, and everything grinds to a halt," said Robert Thompson, head of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television. "If it's true that he's the third most recognizable face in world . . . this is only the beginning."

Cable networks were focused on the tarmac at Santa Barbara's airport for nearly an hour before the plane thought to be carrying Jackson from Las Vegas touched down (the first plane they focused on was not the plane), offering a deluge of coverage usually reserved for heads of state, national heroes and O.J. Simpson.

Helicopter-mounted cameras even focused on a black SUV-led police procession from the airport to the jail in a bizarre echo of the Bronco chase featuring you-know-who.

"One of the few people on Planet Earth said to be known globally," noted Fox News anchor Shepard Smith as the channel endlessly reran footage of a handcuffed Jackson walking into police headquarters.

"We cannot take our eyes off (this) story," said CNN anchor Judy Woodruff during coverage that pushed her midday show, Inside Politics, off the schedule. (One helpful CNN headline noted that Larry King Live would feature a spokesman for Jackson's family at 9 p.m. Synergy and news coverage at once!)

At least the Big Three network news divisions refused to indulge in excess, offering brief updates before their evening shows, which did not lead with the Jackson story.

This media-fed roller coaster began its slow ascent Tuesday with a public search of the singer's Neverland Ranch and Santa Barbara County District Attorney Thomas Sneddon Jr.'s bizarrely chummy news conference Wednesday.

Brusquely shrugging off most questions, Sneddon alternated between a smug "gotcha" confidence and jokes about how he and the county sheriff were too old to care about Jackson's music.

Potential jurors - and where are they going to find 12 people who haven't waded through this media mess 1,000 times already? Mars? - got an eyeful of a not-too-likeable prosecutor still looking snarked that Jackson cut deals to shut down his prosecution when similar allegations were brought in 1993.

Viewers who receive Nightline's daily e-mail got a dose of media ambivalence about this story Wednesday when executive producer Leroy Sievers pondered whether that night's program would focus on Jackson or Bush. (Even ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, in Tampa on Wednesday for a town hall meeting, lamented the necessity of leading his World News Tonight show with the King of Pop over George W.)

Guess which Nightline topic won?

"Clearly, Bush and (British prime minister Tony) Blair and war in Iraq is no question the more substantive story," said Sievers, noting that staffers were evenly split over the issue but figured the Bush/Blair story would still be viable Thursday. "The quip around here is just because everybody is talking about it doesn't mean (Nightline) shouldn't do it."

As coverage unfolded, the talking heads lined up: LaToya Jackson's ex-husband with CNN's Anderson Cooper, attorney Johnnie Cochran on the Today show and Lionel Richie's daughter Nicole, who told Access Hollywood she and several friends shared a bed innocently with Jackson when they were children. Jackson's brother Jermaine even let an obscenity fly during a CNN interview Thursday, leaving anchor Kyra Phillips stammering.

"I am sick and f--- tired of everybody saying these things about my family," he said. "At the end of the day, this is nothing more than a modern-day lynching."

After Thursday's flood of coverage, one thing was clear: If Jackson goes to trial, the resultant media circus will make the O.J. trial look like a comedy on little-seen UPN.

"It would be the most successful miniseries of this season," Thompson said. "This could be the only TV hit of the year."

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