After All The Hype, Service Was Moving

Z on TV

Early Coverage As Wild As Jackson's Career

July 08, 2009|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,david.zurawik@baltsun.com

TV coverage of Michael Jackson's death had it all Tuesday: helicopter freeway shots of the funeral procession, an army of breathless anchors to ratchet up anticipation and, last but not least, the singer's gold-plated, flower-draped casket on view for a worldwide audience.

Yet through all the pomp, the actual memorial service remained moving and elegant.

Talk about a day of TV worthy of the King of Pop spectaculars. Maybe the difference lies in all the new media that have arrived in the last 30 years, but Elvis Presley went out like a peasant in 1977 compared withthe 12-day build-up to Jackson's TV sendoff Tuesday.

The TV coverage started early on the network morning shows, and it was as wild and uneven as Jackson's remarkable life and career.

The Today show, the highest-rated program in morning TV, had a profile of Bubbles, the chimp who once lived with Jackson. The piece featured Bubbles shuffling along in a caged area, and suggested that either Jackson's moonwalk was inspired by Bubbles - or Bubbles was imitating the moonwalk because he knew Jackson was dead (even though the chimp now lives in Florida).

As nutty as that report sounds, it was representative of much of the run-up to the memorial service on this day of wall-to-wall Jackson TV.

But while the media might have acted without much restraint in the morning, the memorial service at the Staples Center opened on a far more subdued and respectful note, with Smokey Robinson reading statements of condolence from Diana Ross and Nelson Mandela. And that tone was maintained through the program that ran just over two hours. It was a dignified and impressive event with bits of fire and soul.

It began with a gospel choir singing "We Are Going to See the King," as Jackson's casket was carried into the hall. You could hear the crowd gasp as it arrived.

Mariah Carey and Trey Lorenz were the first in a dazzling array of musical stars to pay tribute to Jackson, offering an especially melancholy rendition of "I'll Be There," as TV cameras showed tear-streaked faces from inside the hall and at remote locations ranging from Harlem to Tokyo. Stevie Wonder, Jennifer Hudson, Robinson and a host of other stars performed.

Several reminiscences were moving as well. Berry Gordy, the Motown founder, touched a nerve when he talked about a 10-year-old Jackson auditioning for him by singing Robinson's sad and bluesy ballad, "Who's Lovin' You?" Gordy said he couldn't believe a child that young could know so such much about the pain embedded in that song. It made you remember and feel for the child who was carrying his family's fortune on his back while still of elementary school age.

But what the first hour of the memorial lacked was humor. Magic Johnson came onstage later with Kobe Bryant, and tried to fill that void with talk about him and Michael eating "a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken." The audience seemed to appreciate the chance to smile at a fond and bittersweet recollection by one of its heroes.

And they showed him for the sensitive artist and global pop phenomenon he had become. TV was the perfect medium here, as the producers cut to show tearful viewers watching in Berlin, South Africa, Atlanta, Times Square and Delhi.

The images said gave the measure of Jackson's global appeal as no words ever could.

The event closed with family members talking about Michael Jackson, and in the end, no one was more eloquent than Jackson's 11-year-old daughter, Paris.

"Ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could imagine," she said breaking into tears. "And I just want to say I love him so much."

None of the many great entertainers who took the stage at the Staples Center Tuesday afternoon did better than Paris in honoring Michael Jackson.

With those few wrenching words, she helped us see Michael Jackson and those he loved and left behind as people rather than celebrities.

And so, the TV mourning finally ended Tuesday. But brace yourself for some major blowback as the news media start feeling self-conscious about all the coverage and start complaining that today's events were somehow anti-climactic.

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