Television brought the country together like one big rubbernecking family as the verdict was read yesterday in Michael Jackson's 31/2-month trial on child-molestation charges.
At 3:34 p.m., when word came out that the jury had reached a verdict in its seventh day of deliberation, cable news networks shifted into high gear. The broadcast networks, no doubt nettled that the trial had not wrapped in time to get the moment into the May sweeps, waited a couple of minutes before breaking briefly into regularly scheduled fare to announce that a verdict had been reached. They told viewers they would return in about 45 minutes for the reading of the verdict -- signaling to Jackson fans and the morbidly curious that they should jump over to the cable networks. Maybe broadcasters should rethink that strategy the next time the trial of a faded celebrity comes up.
With the broadcast networks returning their stations to "Dr. Phil," "General Hospital," "Guiding Light" and the like, the cable news networks got to work at what they do best -- talking through the wait.
At Fox News Channel, talk turned to what would happen if Michael Jackson did not show up at the courthouse, noting that his three-SUV caravan was still parked at Neverland and with the clock ticking, he might not get to the Santa Barbara County Superior Court by 4:30 p.m., when the judge had said the verdict would be read.
FNC's Los Angeles-based correspondent Trace Gallagher reported from the courthouse in Santa Maria that an ambulance had arrived and that if Jackson, who probably would not tip the scales at more than 105 pounds, was convicted and fainted, "he will be taken out on a stretcher and that will be one vivid picture of Michael Jackson's health."
Fox's Shep Smith wondered what would happen if Jackson simply did not show up.
Gallagher noted that Roger Friedman at FoxNews.com was reporting that Jackson had stayed at the Santa Ynez Inn, not at Neverland, the night before, adding, "Michael Jackson has reportedly been everywhere except hiding with Elvis in the last five days.
"We don't know where Michael is at this point, Shep," he said.
This inspired Shep Smith to imagine that Jackson must be absolutely terrified and that it was not out of the realm of possibility that he was just refusing to leave.
Debate followed as to whether Jackson's mother would collapse if he was found guilty on the more serious counts. "I fully expect Jackson, who barely made it through the trial, who almost didn't get here on Pajama Party Day, that if he is convicted, his mother may collapse in the courtroom," FNC's legal analyst Jim Hammer forecast.
They prattled on about how, if convicted, Jackson would go into a holding cell in the courthouse and then be led out the back, would be driven to the Santa Barbara County Jail at high speed, surrounded by police officers; handcuffs would be involved; and how authorities would not take any chance that he might flee or kill himself.
Over at CNN, Robert Shapiro, lead attorney on O.J. Simpson's defense team, boldly predicted that the jury would render a guilty verdict "that will not have Michael Jackson singing 'Beat It.' "
"I think he's going to be convicted," Shapiro said, noting that he recently polled 36 judges who had tried cases where prior-acts evidence was admitted, and in 35 instances, there had been convictions.
He also noted helpfully that Jackson would be in jail for six months to two years pending appeal and "from my perspective one day in jail will be more than he can manage."
And over at MSNBC, legal analyst Susan Filan -- among those covering the trial who had been heckled by the Jackson-obsessed crowd outside the court each day -- noted that an eerie calm had descended upon the weirdsmobiles, "almost like in the eye of a hurricane," though she predicted "pandemonium" once the verdict was read.
MSNBC moved on to ponder whether if Jackson was found not guilty of felony counts but guilty of misdemeanor charges he could survive even probation.
When the 46-year-old pop has-been finally arrived, looking wan in sunglasses and a dark suit, FNC noted he did not look well and Gallagher reminded viewers about that ambulance standing nearby. On CNN, viewers learned that if the jurors look at Jackson, it will signal acquittal, but if they don't, it would be bad news for the King of Punchlines.
With seconds to go, former prosecutor and FNC guest Wendy Murphy noted that this was "the exact number of days it took the Scott Peterson jury to reach its verdict.
"Frankly, it is too long for an acquittal, not quite long enough for a hung jury. I don't think it's quite long enough for an outright acquittal. I think there is no question we will see convictions here."
"Really?" Shep Smith asked.
"No questions in terms of the timing," she said. "I don't think there is any doubt," she said, but she hedged a bit, saying the jury might convict on the more minor stuff.
The verdict was read.
Not guilty on all 10 counts.
A big disappointment for the cable news networks, but they soldiered on:
"I certainly did" think it would go the other way, Shapiro confessed on CNN. "I didn't think Michael Jackson would be singing 'Beat It.' . . . He will be doing the moonwalk."
Shapiro said he hoped the public would accept the verdict because the jury is "from a very conservative part of California and if they had no doubt, none of us should have any doubt."
On FNC, a disappointed Murphy suggested that Jackson's nickname be changed from King of Pop to Teflon Molester, adding, "We need IQ tests for jurors."
"These jurors have to go to bed tonight and wake up tomorrow and look at themselves in the mirror. And they basically put targets on the backs of all, especially highly vulnerable, kids that will now come into Michael Jackson's life."
Last night, CBS preempted its sitcom "Still Standing" for a half-hour "48 Hours" broadcast on the verdict, while NBC preempted "Fear Factor" for a "Dateline" special. And what of ABC, the network that arguably started it all when it broadcast the Martin Bashir documentary in which Jackson happily discussed sharing his bed with the then-13-year-old cancer victim at the center of the case? At press time, the network had no plans for a prime-time special on the outcome.
Staff writer John Maynard contributed to this report.