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Networks Take on 'a Night of Heartbreak'

By Tom Shales
Friday, June 26, 2009

Two of the broadcast networks, ABC and NB C, squared off for two hours on "a night of heartbreak in Hollywood," as a disembodied voice called it. They assembled their still-formidable resources to "mourn the loss of two American icons": Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett, both of whom died yesterday. CBS joined the obituary race in the last hour of prime time, with an hour hosted by Harry Smith.

The air and airwaves were heavy with momentousness -- and with advertising. In olden TV times, such specials would most likely have aired without commercials and without being included in the Nielsen national ratings -- so-called sustaining programs. But there were clusters of commercials aplenty on this occasion, despite super-sober faces worn by such anchors as NBC's Ann Curry, the modern-day equivalent of a kind of journalist once called a "sob sister."

Curry could melodramatize a report on pork bellies, so of course she anchored the two special back-to-back editions of "Dateline" in a state of high solemnity.

On ABC, Martin Bashir, co-anchor of "Nightline," was drafted into service to eulogize Jackson and Fawcett, an apt choice since he conducted a now-famous interview and report, "Living With Michael Jackson," in 2003. Said Bashir of that interview, in a takes-the-cake moment of sheer hubris: "It was perhaps one of the greatest moments in my own journalistic career."

Wow, how about that?! These things must be kept in the proper historical perspective.

ABC's coverage of Jackson, 50, was the best, if only because it seemed to have access to the largest cache of archival material, with NBC being second-best and CBS unfortunately relying on such lowbrow syndicated tabloid fare as "Entertainment Tonight" and "Inside Edition." In the case of Fawcett, who died of a rare form of cancer at 62, NBC was able to air clips from the recent documentary blockbuster "Farrah's Story" on its special repeat -- and will re-air the show tonight.

Ever since CBS failed to lead its "Evening News" with the death of Elvis Presley on that sad day, Aug. 16, 1977, and wore egg on its face for weeks, networks have been panicky about possibly underplaying pop-cultural landmarks. Thus, all the time accorded Jackson and Fawcett -- with Jackson's the most easily justified because of his musical influence and the tawdriness of his many public scandals involving children as sleepover pals.

"I'm not a wacko," Jackson told ABC's indomitable Barbara Walters in an archival interview. Calling him "Wacko Jacko," he said, "isn't nice."

It was one of dozens of memorable clips aired on the report s; Ryan O'Neal wept as he told Walters of his love for Fawcett. Coverage would continue on "Nightline" and, of course, will likely dominate newscasts today.

"It's a day that saddens all of us," controversial music executive Tommy Mottola told CNN's Larry King, "all over the world."

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