Lisa De Moraes Column on Michael Jackson's Memorial Service

The Jackson family -- from left, Janet, Randy, Tito, Marlon, Jackie and Jermaine -- attend Michael's memorial service in Los Angeles, which drew 31 million viewers across 19 networks.
The Jackson family -- from left, Janet, Randy, Tito, Marlon, Jackie and Jermaine -- attend Michael's memorial service in Los Angeles, which drew 31 million viewers across 19 networks. (By Kevin Mazur -- Mj Memorial Via Getty Images)

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By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, July 9, 2009

Hysterical predictions aside, Michael Jackson's memorial service did not set U.S. television records yesterday.

About 31 million people in the country watched Jackson's last act across 19 networks, according to Nielsen. That's less than half the crowd that collected in front of their sets in August '98 to watch President Bill Clinton apologize for the blue-dress bungle.

Still, it means about one in every 10 people were watching celebrities send Jackson off at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.

And this is pretty significant, given that the memorial aired from 1 to 4 p.m. Eastern (10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Pacific), when, presumably, many people were at work. Unlike Princess Di's funeral, which conveniently was held on a Saturday in 1997 -- and hypnotized 33 million in the U.S.

Nielsen's stat includes viewing on actual TVs and on these networks: ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, Telefutura, Telemundo, Univision, CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, Headline News, BET, E!, MTV, VH1, VH1 Classic, TV Guide Network, TV ONE and MUN2.

It does not include people watching online, which is, of course, a much bigger deal now than in Princess Di's day. MSNBC.com, FNC.com and CNN.com, for example, collectively reported about 11 million live streams of the Jackson memorial, though that does not translate to 11 million people, since a single person can tap in multiple times.

But let's get back to the more solid ground of television stats, where a viewer is a viewer:

The audience for Tuesday's dead-Jackson memorial is virtually identical to the number of people who watched the reading of the live-Jackson trial verdict in June 2005.

It's also on par with the number of people who watched Kris Allen crowned the latest "American Idol."

It's about 10 million more people than watched President Ronald Reagan's funeral in 2004.

And it's about 6 million fewer viewers than watched the most recent Academy Awards show.

British publications were reporting another 6 million watched Jackson's memorial in the U.K.

And of course you're seeing and/or hearing the press reports that about a billion watched Jackson's memorial worldwide. In fact, the press began reporting that figure before the funeral was even held. They did not get this number from Nielsen. For all its faults, Nielsen draws the line at reporting viewing numbers before viewers actually have something to, um, view.

No, this number was being swallowed in big gulps by the press compliments of AEG. AEG is the concert promoter that was supposed to mastermind Jackson's London concert series and instead wound up putting together his memorial service, which featured performances by Mariah Carey, who has since apologized for her performance, and Usher, who ought to apologize for his creepy touch-the-casket performance. Also playing but no apologies necessary: Jermaine Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, Jennifer Hudson, John Mayer and that kid who gave Susan Boyle a run for her money on "Britain's Got Talent."

AEG wasn't thinking big enough -- which is odd for a company that promotes concerts for Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and "American Idol."

Their horseradish doesn't begin to match that of BBC, which, back in '97, told an equally unquestioning press that 2.5 billion people around the globe were going to watch Princess Di's funeral. It became fact before the funeral, and it continued to be cited as fact after the funeral, living on like an eternal flame.

At that time, 2.5 billion was half of the world's population, all sitting around their TVs, watching Princess Di's funeral.

The other half were foraging for potable water at the time, we assume.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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