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E!'s Thriller: Floating a Jackson Trial Balloon

By Lisa de Moraes
Wednesday, January 12, 2005; Page C07


Cable network E! Entertainment will telecast daily half-hour courtroom reenactments chronicling Michael Jackson's trial on child molestation charges, network President Ted Harbert announced Tuesday, getting Winter Television Press Tour 2005 off to a roaring start here.

The former king of pop will go on trial this month for allegedly molesting a boy at his Neverland Ranch. Jackson, 46, faces 10 felony counts; he pleaded not guilty and is free on a $3 million bond. If convicted he could face a sentence of more than 20 years in prison. Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville has refused to let cameras into the courtroom for the trial. Jury selection is scheduled to begin Jan. 31.

E! will cover Michael Jackson's criminal trial by creating reenactments of courtroom events. (Stephen Osman -- Pool Photo Via Reuters)

Harbert rushed to get out the announcement now because, he said, the minute he hires a casting director it'll be all over town. Plus, he added, other networks he would not name were interested in doing the project and had discussed it with E!'s partner in the endeavor, U.K.-based satellite broadcaster British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB).

Asked whether he thought one of those other networks might go ahead, giving U.S. television viewers a choice of competing Michael Jackson trial reenactments, Harbert said, "Now that we're doing it, I really doubt it."

His announcement was met with some laughter from The Reporters Who Cover Television, which seemed to take him aback a bit. The BSkyB suit in the audience didn't seem any too happy either. Maybe they should have made the announcement immediately after unveiling an E! series called "Craft Corner Deathmatch" in which women who like to use glue guns and crochet things engage in deathmatch-like competition.

"I reject out of hand the idea we're goofing on Michael Jackson," Harbert insisted when some critics suggested just that.

"This is well within the parameters of responsible reporting of an important news event," he said, especially "given the stuff that goes on in the news business today." This project does not cross any line that "hasn't already been jumped over," he added.

E!'s reenactments will, in fact, give viewers much more context than any "60-second stand-up" in front of the courthouse by a TV reporter covering the trial for a news operation, Harbert insisted, saying that any news coverage "that isn't C-SPAN is the Cliffs Notes" of the trial.

Harbert reminded reporters that during his many years at ABC, he did many major TV movies ripped from the headlines, and he plans to exercise some of the good taste he developed in his more than two decades working in the TV industry.

Transcripts of testimony will be available shortly after the end of that day's court events. E! producers plan to shoot the reenactments the following morning for telecast first on BSkyB and then on E! in prime time twice that night. A wrap-up show will air on Saturdays.

In 1996, "The O.J. Civil Trial" aired at 5 p.m. and was repeated at 10 p.m., boosting E!'s ratings in those time slots. Actors on that reenactment show used teleprompters to read the transcripts. (The judge in the O.J. Simpson criminal trial allowed cameras in the courtroom, and no reenactment show was needed.)

Harbert said he plans to hire "the best actors we can find" but that none of them will be name actors. He already has someone in mind to play Jackson; the actor, Harbert said, has the ability to look like Jackson "a lot."

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