Michael Jackson's Death and Cable News

“As someone who served as Michael Jackson’s publicist during the 1st child molestation incident, I must confess I am not surprised by this tragic news. Michael has been on an impossibly difficult and often self-destructive journey for years. His talent was unquestionable, but so too was his discomfort with the norms of the world. A human simply can not withstand this level of prolonged stress.”  Michael Levine, Publicist and Author of Never and Guerilla PR.

There will be a long motorcade from Los Angeles to the Neverland Ranch for Michael Jackson’s memorial. The world has stopped to mourn the “King of Pop,” — or has it?

On the night of his death, three major cable networks went "wall to wall" with coverage —  newsworthy and speculative — all night long. The problem with these kinds of stories is there is so little information at the beginning and so much time to fill.  Very quickly, it becomes the speculation of what might be.  Cable Channels vie to be the first with information and according to research over the years, during breaking news events, as much as 40% of first reports are inaccurate. Then there is the dark side of trying to get the first picture of the person or event.  Remember 5 hours circling the buoy in the waters off Hyannis Port when John Kennedy Junior’s plane went down? That was a stellar day in news reporting history.

The Fox News Channel is having one of its best years ever. They will surpass their average ratings for 2008 in 2009, even after a very successful election year and the advent of the Age of Obama in America.  But on the night that Michael Jackson died, the choice was made to go “wall to wall” with their coverage and even use some of the anchors of their primetime line up.  They took a departure from their personality driven format and when the ratings were posted the next day on Drudge, there were drop offs of up to 4 million viewers from the Fox News Channel.  

MSNBC and CNN increased roughly 1 million viewers each on that night.  It’s my guess that their increase was not viewers going from Fox to them.  I think the Fox viewers dropped off and people that usually didn’t watch cable news turned to CNN and MSNBC to see “breaking news.”  Overall, the cable news audience was down about 2 million viewers between the big three of cable.

CNN was the big winner of the Michael Jackson story.  In recent months, CNN has been in a free fall with viewers.  Some weeks, the flagship CNN was ranked 4th behind its Headline News brand.  MSNBC has been adding viewers this year but both networks have been behind the Fox News Channel by more than two thirds even with the gains.  

In the 8 pm to 2 am time slot for June 25, 2009, the day Michael Jackson died, CNN averaged 3.04 million viewers, Fox News averaged 2.09 million viewers and MSNBC was a distant third with 1.06 million viewers according to Nielson Media Research data.  In all honesty, I was one of those viewers that turned the coverage off.  I make my living off the news but I couldn’t stomach the fawning coverage of a very troubled man. While I can see the comparisons to Elvis’ death, it had been a very long time since Michael Jackson had been in the public eye in a positive way.  

We will continue to see this wall to wall coverage when certain celebrities die because there are good pictures to go with it.  This is a visual medium after all.  In addition, we have all become “cub reporters” with cell phone cameras and iPhones uploading video and audio immediately. There are cameras and microphones everywhere.

Will the numbers stick? One day does not a trend make and we’ve already seen a return to almost normal numbers on FNC, CNN and MSNBC. Fox News restored the normal line up and their viewers came back.  In fairness, The Fox News Channel has beaten all the odds with overall ratings for this year beating the record numbers of last year. They’ve added Glenn Beck, replaced Brit Hume with Brett Baier on Special Report and sent Hannity solo at 9 pm and all time slots are up over last year.

While it’s evident that the next “Michael Jackson like” event will be covered wall to wall, I hope that there will be real discussion about what coverage is necessary. The culture seems to be demanding it but are they?  If the overall cable news audience was down, maybe regular programming with updates is the way to go.

I tuned into Glenn Beck on Monday on FNC and I had to laugh out loud.  Several times during the show he said something like, “Breaking news, Michael Jackson is still dead.”