ABC takes heat, gives Jackson air time


ABC yesterday announced it would televise a new Michael Jackson special in prime time on July 28 -- flying into the teeth of criticism it has gotten for allegedly giving guarantees to Jackson to obtain last month's interview with the pop music star and wife, Lisa Marie Presley.

The special was announced by Ted Harbert, ABC entertainment president, during a press conference in Los Angeles here with TV critics.

Such press conferences are usually relatively amiable affairs to talk up new fall shows. But not this one. Harbert faced a barrage of hostile questions asking, among other things, whether ABC had become a "shill" for Jackson.

At the heart of the matter are allegations that ABC News got last month's Jackson interview with Diane Sawyer on "PrimeTime zTC Live," over rivals NBC and CBS, by promising Jackson just such a prime-time special to promote his latest album.

On Monday, NBC News President Andy Lack said his network backed off its pursuit of the interview after it was "made clear to me that something more was going to be required from us to get it. I didn't know what that something was, but I didn't like the sound of it."

Asked if there were a deal, Harbert said, "There was absolutely no quid pro quo between ABC News or ABC Entertainment and Michael Jackson. . . . Absolutely not."

But he did acknowledge that he "steered" Jackson's manager to ABC News in an effort to help make the interview happen.

Jackson's July 28 special -- a half-hour show that will pre-empt a rerun of "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper" -- sounds like an infomercial for his album. It will include the release of a new video for "You Are Not Alone," as well as a "mega-mix" of Jackson's greatest video moments, Harbert said. The special will be simulcast on cable channels MTV and BET (Black Entertainment Television).

Furthermore, Jackson will produce the special, and "give" it to ABC to air -- free of charge -- in return for ABC's giving Jackson 10 prime-time commercial "spots" to advertise his album.

Harbert said ABC had never entered such a barter agreement with a performer. He defended the arrangement by saying ABC would make money off the special, without unduly compromising itself.

"I, frankly, find the gentleman [Jackson] entertaining," Harbert said. "Let's not be silly. . . . Does this guy have an album to sell? You bet. But I also think that's why people go on Jay Leno and David Letterman every night . . . to sell stuff."

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