For a hastily planned event that had Los Angeles city officials going into four-alarm-crisis mode, the July 7 memorial for Michael Jackson was somber and surprisingly intimate. As fans shouted ”Long live the King,” the tribute at the Staples Center brought Jackson’s family, colleagues, and friends together for a cathartic celebration of the singer’s tragically curtailed life. ”His presence in the building is what took it from being a television production and made it something much more,” producer Ken Ehrlich, who helped pull together the star-studded spectacle in just five days, tells EW. ”It was like going to church.”
There was certainly no denying the emotion pouring out of all those who gathered to view Jackson’s rose-covered casket, from the lucky 17,500 ticket winners — ”My tears could fill up a bucket,” said Maggie Ramirez of Torrance, Calif. — to the participants. Stevie Wonder whispered, ”This is a moment that I wish…I didn’t live to see” before singing his classic ballad ”Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer.” (The solo piano performance had even the jaded journalists on the Staples Center’s makeshift ”press row” sniffling.) A crestfallen Brooke Shields — Jackson’s longtime friend and sometime date — recalled how the two child stars both ”needed to be adults very early. But when we were together, we were two little kids having fun.” (In a much-needed moment of levity, she also noted that holding hands with the often-gloved singer was difficult, because ”sequins really hurt.”) The emotional highlight of the ceremony, though, came more than two hours in, when Jackson’s 11-year-old daughter, Paris, took the stage and, talking through tears, said, ”Ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you can ever imagine. And I just want to say I love him so much.”
Jackson had always kept his children — Paris; Prince Michael, 12; and Prince Michael II (a.k.a. Blanket), 7 — far from the spotlight, so her tear-jerking tribute was particularly unexpected, even to the show’s organizers. ”I had asked the family to come up if they wanted to say something. I thought, frankly, that we were going to get the brothers and the sisters,” Ehrlich explains. ”This went way beyond that, obviously. Paris made an unforgettable event even more unforgettable — eternal.”
Outside the arena, meanwhile, the scene was shockingly subdued. ”People show up, they realize they can’t see anything, and they leave,” said one mounted policeman. That didn’t stop heavy hitters like Katie Couric and Brian Williams from setting up outdoor studios to continue the wall-to-wall orgy of Jackson coverage that has ranged in scope from his medical history to his will, his debt, the still-pending toxicology report, and the upcoming custody battle over his kids. (Not to mention the occasional ”Where’s Bubbles?” story.) In short, not since the death of Princess Diana in 1997 has an icon’s passing been so aggressively documented. ”This is — how can I put this? — such a manic story,” explains Rob Silverstein, executive producer of Access Hollywood. ”There are just so many angles.”
Is the sudden death of a superstar, at just 50 years old, a compelling story? Of course. But for media companies hammered by the economic downturn, it’s more than a juicy yarn; it’s a much-needed boost to their traditionally low summer ratings. The fortuitously timed BET Awards scored their best ratings ever — 10.7 million — when they paid tribute to the musician a mere three days after his death. Entertainment programs like Access, Extra, and The Insider saw single-digit boosts in viewership. Even Jackson himself (or, rather, his estate) benefited from the fascination with his death: Apple’s music store sold 422,000 of his albums in the week ending June 28, a 4,000 percent spike in sales.
But amid all the tweets, cable chatter, and very special episodes, some observers are saying, Enough already. Within days of Jackson’s death, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press commissioned a study on the media’s Michael mania and found that 64 percent of its respondents felt the coverage was ”too much.” ”We really don’t look at it that way,” says Bart Feder, senior vice president of U.S. programming for CNN, which had its best Q2 in years, aided in part by the Jackson news. ”Clearly, this is a global story and CNN has earned its reputation covering major events.” (Just the day before the memorial, the network offered exhaustive coverage of the court hearing in which Katherine Jackson lost control of her son’s estate to John Branca and John McClain, the executors named in the singer’s will.) Even media buyers, who analyze programming and trends, don’t think the networks are alienating audiences. ”Jackson’s had a huge influence around the globe, regardless of his recent history,” says Starcom Entertainment’s Laura Caraccioli-Davis. ”This is the right amount of coverage.”
Jackson’s friends and family might disagree. Several times during the ceremony, supporters lashed out at the media, which, they claim, is focusing on Jackson’s personal peccadilloes, troubled legal history — including molestation allegations in 1993 (the singer settled out of court) and 2003 (he was later acquitted) — and, since his death, allegations of prescription-drug use. ”I want his three children to know, there wasn’t nothing strange about your daddy,” said Rev. Al Sharpton. ”It was strange what your daddy had to deal with.” (The remark earned a standing ovation, an explosion of applause that was even louder in the arena than it sounded on TV.) After the family gathered on stage for renditions of ”We Are the World” and ”Heal the World” — performed by the singers, including standout Judith Hill, who would have joined Jackson for his London shows — the King of Pop’s brother Marlon tried to put it all in perspective: ”We will never, never understand what he endured, not being able to walk across the street without a crowd gathering around him. Being judged, ridiculed. How much pain can one take? Maybe now, Michael, they will leave you alone.”
(Additional reporting by Paige Parker, Whitney Pastorek, Archana Ram, and Tanner Stransky)