Jackson saga again swamps the airwaves

Times Staff Writers

Nine months after a torrent of Michael Jackson specials invaded prime time, Thursday's arrest of the reclusive singer and the child molestation allegations against him have again sparked Michaelmania with network and cable programmers.

During the next several days, network news divisions are hurriedly preparing Jackson-related stories, while daily shows such as "Entertainment Tonight" and "Access Hollywood" are devoting most of their resources to covering him.

Tonight's installment of CBS' "48 Hours Investigates" at 8 p.m. has shifted from a planned look at fad diets to an hour devoted to Jackson, including "exclusive" new video from his former advisor Uri Geller. NBC's "Dateline" on Sunday, which coincidentally was also going to focus on fad diets, will also be devoted to a Jackson update.

"This is a story that has captured people's imaginations, and part of me says that the audience, especially on a Saturday, deserves what they're interested in," said Susan Zirinsky, executive producer of "48 Hours," talking about why she made the quick switch. "It made the front page of the New York Times and the L.A. Times, and for the New York Times and L.A. Times to be in agreement, I have to take notice."

The addition of a Michael Jackson news special to CBS' lineup carries some irony, given that the network earlier this week canceled an entertainment program about the singer. That program -- a retrospective of his career, produced by Jackson and pegged to the release of his new CD, "Number Ones" -- was to have aired next Wednesday, but CBS said it had decided to postpone the broadcast "given the gravity of the charges against Mr. Jackson."

Also coming Sunday at 7:30 p.m. on cable's VH1 is a rerun of "Living With Michael Jackson," the controversial British documentary by Martin Bashir that first aired in the U.S. on ABC's "20/20" last February. The documentary will be followed at 9:30 p.m. by a repeat of a VH1 news special, "Michael Jackson Sex Scandal," which first aired on Friday.

The weekend Jackson deluge follows a cavalcade of Jackson-related specials that followed his arrest Thursday. NBC's Friday "Dateline" was scheduled to devote its entire hour to Jackson, while ABC's "20/20" on Friday rushed to include an interview with Jermaine Jackson, Michael's brother.

The rationale is simple: Jackson's record-selling power may have waned in recent years, but he can still bring viewers to the TV set: not with his singing but with his bizarre behavior. The first broadcast of Bashir's documentary in February, in which Jackson showed off his Neverland home and defended his relationships with young children, was watched by more than 27.1 million people, the biggest audience for any newsmagazine since Barbara Walters interviewed Monica S. Lewinsky in 1999.

That program kicked off a month of Michaelmania, with at least 10 hours of Jackson-themed programming running on the networks during an important ratings sweeps period.

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