Friday, July 03, 2009

We Are The World ...

... and the world will be tuning in Tuesday for Michael Jackson's memorial service.

Todd Leopold of CNN speculates that the service "could be one of the most–viewed events of all time."

I can't argue with that. We've had wall–to–wall coverage ever since Jackson died more than a week ago — and we seem sure to have a lot more coverage until the investigations into the Diprivan allegations are finished.

It certainly makes sense that the memorial service would attract a sizable audience. Even those who are at work can tune in through the internet. And the same will be true all over the world. There will be people watching in the wee small hours of the morning.

In his analysis, Leopold seems to have considered every angle and every kind of event that has drawn large viewing audiences — the JFK assassination, the Beatles' first appearance on American TV, Apollo 11, the "Who Shot J.R.?" episode of "Dallas," the finale of "M*A*S*H," Princess Di's funeral, Super Bowls. It certainly seems plausible to believe Tuesday's memorial will exceed them all as a shared experience.

I've heard Jackson's death compared to Elvis Presley's. In terms of its impact on a generation, I'm sure that is true. I have no doubt that Presley's memorial would have drawn a television audience to rival Jackson's, but you have to keep in mind that technology was much more primitive in 1977.

And the world's population was much smaller 32 years ago. What's more, as improbable as it may seem to today's youth, there were some people who, by choice or circumstance or perhaps both, did not have a TV. Of those who did own TVs, most were not on cable, and those who were did not have CNN or any other news channels because they didn't exist.

The Big Three — ABC, CBS and NBC — provided plenty of coverage at the time, though. I remember watching the hearse leave Graceland with Presley's body — and the streets lined with people as far as the eye could see. And the networks may have covered his memorial service, too, but I honestly don't remember. He died around the time that school was resuming, and I must have been at school that day because I have no memory of his memorial.

But the raw numbers for Presley — and even Princess Di 20 years later — may be dwarfed by Jackson's.

It's become increasingly difficult to estimate how many people watch the same event on TV at the same time. The most efficient thing to calculate is perhaps the number of TVs that are tuned to a given network at a given time, but, as Leopold observes, "[N]obody knows how many people are watching in groups or in public places." Several people may watch an event or program on the same TV. That is how many Americans followed the news of President Kennedy's assassination in 1963, and people who had a TV in their office gathered around it when the terrorist attacks occurred on Sept. 11, 2001.

In the history of these shared events, Jackson's memorial may be the biggest of them all. We've been getting some indicators of what to expect.

I recall that, in the weeks after Elvis Presley's death, many of his records sold well, but I don't recall anything to rival Jackson. A few years later, when John Lennon was murdered, there was a surge in the sales of Beatles records, but, again, it wasn't really comparable. In the week since his death, I've heard that Jackson has nine of the albums in Billboard's Top 10.

Jackson's service will be held at the Staples Center, where he was preparing for the comeback concerts he didn't live to give. To gain admission, one must have one of the 17,500 free tickets that will be distributed via lottery.

Los Angeles' acting mayor is already urging citizens who do not have a ticket to stay at home and watch on TV, and the police have warned the public that people without tickets will be turned away or arrested.

But I'd still be willing to bet there will be a large crowd outside the Staples Center on Tuesday.