ABC has substituted a train wreck for a plane crash.
Citing taste concerns in the wake of the space shuttle explosion, the network has pulled its planned made-for-TV flick "NTSB: The Crash of Flight 323," a fictional account of an air crash investigation (and in what universe was that project a good idea in the first place?), which had been scheduled to air Thursday night.
In its place, ABC has moved its train wreck -- the British documentary on Michael Jackson that was scheduled to air on Friday. We got the skinny on it from The Post's Glenn Frankel in London, where it aired last night.
Our story opens in Neverland, Jackson's estate outside Santa Barbara, Calif. British journalist Martin Bashir is shown around the estate and introduced to Jackson's three kids: 6-year-old Prince Michael I, 4-year-old daughter Paris and infant Prince Michael II, known as Blanket. Debbie Rowe is the mother of the older two; Jackson says he doesn't know Blanket's mom, a surrogate.
Jackson denies that he has had plastic surgery, allowing only that he's had two operations on his nose to help him breathe so that he can better hit high notes.
We then move to Las Vegas, where Jackson spends, according to Bashir, $6 million while shopping, and to Berlin. Bashir was not actually in the fourth-floor hotel room when Jackson dangled Prince Michael II over the balcony while horrified fans watched below.
"That's totally ignorant," Jackson says of the outcry. "I would never do harm to any child. [Fans] were shouting, 'We want to see your child.' So I was kind enough to let them see."
Back at Neverland viewers meet 12-year-old Gavin, a former cancer patient who, with his brother and sister, has spent the night in Jackson's bedroom. The former superstar says he sleeps on the floor in a sleeping bag.
"That's the most loving thing you can do is share your bed with someone," Jackson explains to Bashir.
Hell hath no fury like David E. Kelley when one of his series has been moved out of its time slot.
Twentieth Century Fox TV -- production home of Kelley's series -- yesterday sent an e-mail to The Reporters Who Cover Television savaging the debut of Dick Wolf's new ABC series, "Dragnet," in the Sunday 10 p.m. slot that, until recently, had been home to Kelley's "The Practice."
"Despite the benefit of the highest rated 'Alias' lead-in since October 21, 2001 (as well as a 3-month, $10 million promotional campaign), the premiere of 'Dragnet' fell below 'The Practice's' first-run season average among adults 18-49," sniffed the e-mail.
ABC suits presumed the e-mail was sent to placate Kelley, who last week had a very public tantrum when the first numbers came in for "The Practice" in its new Monday time slot opposite Fox's "Joe Millionaire." Kelley's show had plunged to less than 9 million viewers.
To trade paper Variety, Kelley suggested, among other things, that "it's folly to try to guess what's in [ABC execs'] heads because that would start with the presumption that there's something" in them.
In its snippy-mail, 20th Century Fox TV noted that "Dragnet" did outrate the performance by "The Practice" in the time slot by 18 percent among -- gasp -- viewers 50 or over. The line was not intended as a compliment; in TV-speak, 50-plus is toxic.
Needless to say, 20th Century Fox TV did not congratulate "Dragnet" for beating the debut of NBC's highly hyped "Kingpin" among viewers overall, with an average of 13.3 million viewers to 12.5 million for "Kingpin."
Bill Lord has been named vice president for news at WJLA, where he will oversee the newscasts at both ratings-challenged Channel 7 and NewsChannel 8. The two recently merged their newsgathering operations.
Lord was news director at the CBS affiliate KIRO-TV in Seattle. He was let go in May 2001 after failing to boost KIRO's newscasts above third place in that market, even though, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, KIRO frequently beat its competition on breaking news and its investigative work "transcended the standard sweeps-month fear that aims to frighten rather than inform."
KIRO's general manager had lured Lord -- who also had headed the station's news department from '93 to '95 -- back from Los Angeles, where he was news director at KNBC.
Among those Lord hired while at KNBC was Bob Long, now news director at WRC.
"He's a good guy, a solid journalist," Long told The TV Column. "I welcome him to town. He will improve the quality of the competition. Of course, I'll have to beat him -- but I won't do it with any joy," he joked.
"There's a very bright staff here," Lord said yesterday of his new operation at WJLA and NewsChannel 8. "The combination of cable and broadcast allows us to do a lot of things other [stations] can't keep up with. There are an awful lot of opportunities in terms of improving the product and reaching out to viewers."
During Saturday's coverage of the Columbia space shuttle disaster, Aaron Brown was not to be seen on CNN, where he's allegedly the lead anchor.
But you might have caught him on CBS -- playing golf that afternoon in the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in Palm Desert, Calif.
Tom Brokaw managed to get from his Virgin Islands vacation over to Cape Canaveral on Saturday to anchor NBC's coverage of the space shuttle tragedy. ABC's Peter Jennings drove into New York from Long Island; by 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Dan Rather was on the air (where he remained until CBS decided to cut to golf right in the middle of the riveting news conference in which NASA officials were finally discussing details of the disaster and recovery effort).
But Brown was quoted Sunday in the Palm Springs Desert Sun as saying that it didn't make sense to go to New York, and going to CNN's Los Angeles offices, he said, "didn't make any sense because I didn't have any clothes."
Brown also told the Desert Sun, "I felt a profound sadness at what happened. It's horrible. A golf tournament, even a fun one, it didn't matter. It took the fun out of it today for me."
So sad for Brown.