The slumbering media-celebrity-industrial complex awoke with a vengeance yesterday, as cable news coverage was dominated by the issuance of arrest warrants against music superstar Michael Jackson for multiple counts of child molestation.
It was O.J. nation all over again - a mixture of police blotter news and celebrity gossip, with the promise of multiple felony charges ahead.
"The media tend to gravitate toward individuals who represent certain kinds of status," says University of Georgia media scholar Horace Newcomb, director of the Peabody Awards for outstanding achievement in broadcasting and cable. "Once in the public eye, anything that happens to that individual is fodder for the mill.
"The question is whether this is worth a large amount of attention given what else is happening," Newcomb says.
Indeed, the buffet of alternate news fare includes the troubled occupation of Iraq, mutual fund scandals and the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts.
Nonetheless, major networks broke in briefly yesterday afternoon with coverage of the announcement of the warrants for Jackson's arrest by the district attorney and sheriff in Santa Barbara, Calif. Cable stations showed various aerial shots of Jackson's "Neverland" compound, replete with manicured grounds, swimming pools and fountains. And the cable networks aired footage of Jackson dancing, singing and mugging for the cameras of paparazzi.
"We're at the nexus of celebrity and crime potential - and there is the element of bizarreness about him as well," says Mark Effron, vice president for live news at cable news station MSNBC. "You put all that together and it's something people care about."
At yesterday's press conference, Santa Barbara District Attorney Tom Sneddon seemed at once to revel in the media spotlight and be slightly unnerved by it, joking with reporters and at one point knocking a microphone from his lectern.
Though Jackson's career has tapered off in recent years, he remains a big star domestically and abroad. Television specials involving the self-styled "King of Pop" have generally drawn large ratings - ABC, NBC and Fox all relied on them last February - especially in the wake of controversy.
But this development proved too hot. CBS has indefinitely delayed an hour-long taped music program featuring him that had been scheduled for broadcast next Wednesday.
CNN, Court TV, Fox News Channel and MSNBC also covered live remarks of President Bush and Queen Elizabeth II at a formal state dinner in England, the first since Woodrow Wilson traveled to the United Kingdom more than eight decades ago.
But even then, ribbons of text covered the bottom third of the screen identifying developments on other stories, many of which had a familiar feel: the murder of Laci Peterson, the rape charges facing Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant, the sentencing of the Washington-area sniper.
One of the items on CNN's crawl was telling. Jackson had reportedly retained one of the lawyers for Laci Peterson's husband, who is on trial, accused of her murder.
"I suspect this story will show up across the board, in major news [outlets] as well as entertainment news," Newcomb says. "It'll be a runner. It'll be there when someone wants to fill a news hole."