On-Line with the King of Pop

By Erin Richter
Updated September 08, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

However wobbly his standing as the King of Pop, Michael Jackson can now lay claim to a new title: the Czar of Cyberchat. Although Jackson’s live on-line debut last month didn’t significantly boost HIStory‘s sagging sales, it drew more than 25,000 participants worldwide (besting Sandra Bullock’s record of 2,035) in an event marketed as the first ”simulchat” (hosted by on-line services America On line, CompuServe, and Prodigy; and accessible on the Internet). MTV concurrently aired Jackson videos, occasionally splitting the screen to show AOL’s transcript text. Judging from the glitches this time, however, simulchats have a long way to go before becoming truly interactive.

For slightly more than an hour, Jackson fielded questions about his music, his marriage, and the media. Each service had two typists with Jackson in a room at New York City’s Museum of Television & Radio, selecting questions and sending out Jackson’s dictated responses. ”The only rules were that there were no rules,” says Barry Johnson, head of New Technologies for Epic Records Group, Jackson’s label. ”There was no rehearsing, no prepping.” Even so, most of the questions were painfully tame. The most provocative query came from Britain, where the Daily Mirror reported that wife Lisa Marie Presley was seeking a divorce. Jackson responded, ”No, it’s not true” before the story appeared in U.S. papers the next morning.

Although the on-line services knew that Jackson would draw, they weren’t prepared for the size of the crowd. ”It’s like they expected to go out for a swim and got hit by a tidal wave,” says Jonathan Carey, managing director of Prospero Systems Research, which provided the software for Sony’s Net chat. Tech problems tripped up AOL, whose on-line and MTV feeds started 10 minutes later than the others’, killing any notion of a simultaneous event. Plagued by typos, transcripts were worded differently on each of the services, and AOL’s session carried only 24 questions, while Prodigy had 39 and CompuServe, 37.

While some on-line users were disappointed by the chat’s brevity, the services aren’t complaining: Subscribers spent $3 to $5 each to be part of the event. ”It wasn’t completely seamless, but we’ve learned a lot,” says AOL chat producer Amy Arnold. ”The experience for the members isn’t the same. They would like to be with the celebrity the whole time themselves.” If there’s a next one, says Arnold, it would be only with someone as well-known as the King of Pop. And maybe next time it won’t be such a royal pain.