Because one hour about Michael Jackson is simply not enough for a sweeps period, ABC News has bought U.S. broadcast rights to a two-hour British documentary about Wacko Jacko. It will air Feb. 7.
As of late yesterday, NBC News had not moved its previously announced one-hour "Dateline" special on the pop star's face, scheduled for Feb. 17.
Though all four major broadcast networks were interested in "Living With Michael Jackson," final bidding came down to ABC News and NBC News. ABC won, news sources say, by agreeing to pay Granada Television in the neighborhood of $5 million for the documentary, for which British journalist Martin Bashir spent eight months interviewing Jackson about this and that, including his penchant for plastic surgery and those old child abuse allegations.
Bashir was with the 44-year-old Jackson late last year when the Motown Weirdsmobile decided it would be fun to dangle his baby from a Berlin hotel balcony while horrified fans watched below -- a story that pushed the fading celebrity right back onto front pages.
ABC News naturally declined to confirm that it had paid as much for the special as a network can spend covering, say, a political convention, according to news reports.
On the other hand, ABC's coverage of the two political conventions in 2000 maxed out at under 8 million viewers.
Mikey will do far better than that. Even though his TV appeal isn't what it used to be, his CBS concert special in November 2001 still scored about 26 million viewers. (That's a far cry, though, from the more than 62 million who caught his 1993 ABC interview with Oprah Winfrey, and also short of the 38 million who watched his '95 ABC interview with Diane Sawyer following his marriage to Lisa Marie Presley.)
The Brit documentary, airing on ITV this Monday, is only 90 minutes long, but ABC is turning it into a two-hour special, which leaves a half-hour in which to pack 30-second spots at a few hundred thou a pop. You do the math.
But an NBC News source suggested yesterday that the finances didn't make sense for them, especially since the network already had one Jackson project in the works, for which it was doing its own reporting. "Michael Jackson Unmasked" will use the transformation of the singer's face to discuss the transformation of his career and will include interviews with one of his former plastic surgeons, among others. (The one-hour special was greenlighted by NBC President Andrew Lack not long before he left the network to head Sony Music -- Jackson's record label.)
An ABC News insider responded: "I'll tell you the difference between ABC's Michael Jackson documentary and NBC's. ABC's will have Michael Jackson; NBC's will have people talking about Michael Jackson."