Insiders rip ABC dealings with Jackson

June 28, 1995|By Marc Gunther | Marc Gunther,Knight-Ridder News Service

It was the TV event of the summer: some 60 million people watching Diane Sawyer interview Michael Jackson on ABC's "PrimeTime Live."

What viewers didn't see, though, now has TV insiders buzzing: the behind-the-scenes deal-making that got Ms. Sawyer together with Mr. Jackson and his wife, Lisa Marie Presley.

The juiciest angle? That ABC gave Mr. Jackson commercial time worth up to $1.5 million, in exchange for rights to his future videos, even as Ms. Sawyer was wooing the pop star.

ABC says the commercial deal wasn't a backhanded payoff for appearing in the June 15 interview. "There's absolutely no connection," said Gary Morgenstern, an ABC News spokesman, noting that the deal was made with ABC Entertainment, a separate division of ABC.

But ABC and Ms. Sawyer clearly bent over backward -- and bent industry standards -- to keep Mr. Jackson happy. In the process, critics contend, they sold out viewers who expect a top-flight news organization like ABC News not to get too cozy with the people it covers.

About one in four Americans saw at least part of Ms. Sawyer's interview with Mr. Jackson and Ms. Presley. However, the audience fell short of the mark set by Oprah Winfrey's 90-minute interview with Mr. Jackson in 1993, also on ABC. That attracted more than 62 million viewers.

"The public is rightfully skeptical" of news organizations that make too many concessions to celebrities they cover, said Alex Jones, a former New York Times reporter and a media critic on public radio and television. "That's not journalism. That's press agentry."

Only in recent days has it become known how far ABC went to accommodate the mercurial pop star. For example:

* Mr. Jackson wanted the interview to be live. ABC News agreed, which put Ms. Sawyer at a disadvantage because of the time constraints and because reporters who get tough on live TV run the risk of looking like bullies.

* Mr. Jackson wanted 90 minutes of air time. ABC News gave him the hour-long "PrimeTime" show, plus a flattering 15-minute promotional segment on the previous week's episode.

* Mr. Jackson wanted the entire four-minute, 45-second video "Scream" telecast during the show. ABC News complied.

* Mr. Jackson was permitted to see taped portions of the show before it aired, and he objected to the way he was lighted. ABC News electronically altered the tape to soften lines created by the lighting.

By most accounts, both ABC and Mr. Jackson came out winners. The interview drew more than twice as many viewers as anything else on television that week. "It was a ratings bonanza for ABC, a PR bonanza for Michael Jackson," said a rival network executive. "But at what price? This was the ultimate Faustian bargain."

Ms. Sawyer's handling of the interview got mixed reviews. She vigorously pressed Mr. Jackson about the child-abuse charges, but didn't follow up after Ms. Presley revealed that young boys slept in Mr. Jackson's bed and followed him into the bathroom.

Television executives say it's less risky to ask such pointed follow-up questions in a taped interview because, if they look mean-spirited or don't get answers, the questions can be edited out.

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