Jackson mania 

26 June 2009 tbs.pm/1071

Once every so often, a news story breaks of great enough importance that gets the media into such a tizz it makes everything else take a back seat for a while, although the hype on this occasion was just about justified given the cultural impact that this person had, not just on the music industry but on a global scale.

I’m of course referring to the death of pop star Michael Jackson (how could it be anything else?!), since unless you’re residing in the Big Brother house (god forbid) or currently living somewhere like Iran, you can’t help but have noticed what has been happening today courtesy of blanket coverage provided by most major media outlets.

Of course major news stories like this one are manna from heaven for the rolling news channels, so it was no surprise to learn that Sky News apparently got so carried away with the story that it displayed its “BREAKING NEWS” strapline for so long it almost became a running joke.

In an era of instant news coverage it’s almost expected nowadays that the corresponding tribute documentary should be ready to show given five seconds’ notice, and the major broadcasters didn’t disappoint on this occasion, with all the terrestrial broadcasters eagerly responding to the perceived demand.

And with Channel Five controller Dawn Airey’s prior pledge to specialise in fast turnaround documentaries responding to major news events, it’s no surprise whatsoever that Five was quick out the gates with its “Michael Jackson: King of Pop” at 7pm. (A title coincidentally also used by 4Music’s tribute; presumably there was no time to be too imaginative.)

Next up was BBC One’s BBC News Special half an hour later, presented by Jeremy Vine and was predictably a bit more serious than Five’s effort as well as usefully being more of a reaction piece than just a retrospective, although there were bite-sized music clips to break up what could theoretically have been a relatively lifeless studio discussion.

Then ITV1 showed its effort as an hour-long special at 8pm, axing Airline and moving Corrie to 9pm as a consequence; of interest was the fact that it wasn’t made by Granada ITV Productions Studios and was narrated by club DJ Seb Fontaine, suggesting that much of it was already in the can just waiting to be shown.

As well as its news coverage at 7pm, Channel 4 also opted to show its hour-long Life Of Pop at 8pm as well, although competing with ITV1 isn’t exactly the deathwish it once was (apart from when it’s doing Britain’s Got Talent or The X Factor), but I never saw much of this due to dodgy Freeview reception so can’t comment on what it was like.

Poor Channel 4.

Even BBC Two wasn’t going to be left out of the action with a 20 minute Newsnight Special at 11pm sandwiched between Glastonbury coverage and Newsnight proper. Of course Sky One and various music TV channels also got in on the tribute act, although Virgin 1 perhaps predictably wouldn’t waver from showing its X-Files/Star Trek marathon.

Plus of course there were the Michael Jackson tracks liberally sprinkled all over the radio schedules, only varying in era depending on which station(s) you were listening to; stations such as Smooth Radio predictably homed in on Michael Jackson’s Motown recordings whilst the trendier stations went for the likes of Thriller/Beat It/etc..

Radio 2’s factual contribution largely consisted of a 30-minute Paul Gambacinni-narrated documentary at 7pm entitled An Appreciation of Michael Jackson, which of course like other BBC offerings is available to listen to via the iPlayer for the next seven days. And naturally, Radio 4 also used its Today Programme to provide relevant coverage.

It’s impossible to say whether interest in the death of Michael Jackson exceeded either that of Elvis Presley in 1977 or John Lennon in 1980, even though certain people seemed to think that this was the case; for one thing there wasn’t the ability to react as quickly in terms of documentary-making or multiple media outlets competing for people’s attention.

Certainly this major story provided a stern test for new media in particular, with various websites recording heavy traffic even if they weren’t temporarily taken offline as a consequence. Instant messaging services like Twitter and mobile phone texts reached a heady peak, especially in the US when the story was in the early stages of unfurling.

And finally, BBC management must be breathing a sigh of relief that this story came along at an opportune moment to divert some of the attention away from the BBC’s publication of various staff expense claim revelations, which although might not have been on the same scale as MP’s expense claims they were enough to ruffle a few feathers in the process.

RIP Michael Jackson.