KABC tries an all-Jackson format

You give KABC-TV 22 minutes, it will give you Michael Jackson.

At least that was the case Wednesday night for the O&O’s late newscast, when the station made history by ignoring all the news of the day for an entire program devoted to Oprah Winfrey’s preceding network interview with the self-proclaimed King of Pop.

The O&O threw in weather and sports, allowing it to qualify as a newscast under Nielsen rules.

Good thing, because KABC buried the competition with a colossal 32.5 rating/ 62 share, retaining all but 2 shares from its lead-in. KNBC-TV was runner-up with a barely visible 4.2/8 and KCBS-TV trailed with a microscopic 1.8/3.

Arbitron, which has no rules dictating what constitutes a newscast, awarded the station a 33.1/63. KNBC could muster only a 3.6/7 and KCBS scraped by with a 3.1/6.

The ratings ploy brought immediate criticism from the competition and some of KABC’s own news staffers, but both of its O&O competitors found Jackson news angles to pursue on their Wednesdaynight and Thursday newscasts.

Never before has a network station in L.A. tied the whole 11 p.m. newscast into sweeps programming.

A station spokesman, likening the coverage to that following a Super Bowl or Academy Awards show (with live cutaways to bars), defended the tactic.

“There was no big breaking news in L.A. that we didn’t already have in our early news. If there had been a big breaking story, we would have had it,” he said.

The biggest story of the night, according to the KABC rep, was President Clinton’s town hall meeting “and we knew ‘Nightline’ would follow us with a 45 -minute report about it.”

Competitors, however, noted that KABC missed Vice President Al Gore’s first town hall meeting, which was held in the Southland Wednesday night. They also charged that KABC abused its responsibility to viewers by ignoring the news of the day, since many weren’t home to watch the early evening newscasts.

“It certainly helped them (in terms of ratings), but I wonder if it won’t hurt them in the long run, when viewers don’t trust them to broadcast news on an important news day.”

KABC news director Roger Bell shot back that his station was the only O&O to send a news crew to Mexico yesterday to cover the aftermath of an apparent drug-related massacre.

Perhaps tellingly, no other competitors criticized the common practice of tying news into prime time programming during sweeps.

“It was a good program following the Michael Jackson interview, but you have to ask if it was a good newscast,” KCBS news director John Lippman said. “I’m just amazed we were able to fill our own newscast. Obviously, L.A. and the Southland stood still while Michael Jackson filled their news.”

To add to the surreal atmosphere in local TV news, KCAL-TV managed to scoop KABC by providing answers to the key Jackson questions nearly a half-hour before the “live” spec aired in L.A.

KCAL relied on some East Coast spies who’d seen the feed at 6:30 p.m. PST. Reporter Cary Berglund conducted a live standup from the gate to Jackson’s ranch , reading a list of his answers to such pressing issues as his skin pigmentation.

Following one exchange in which Jackson bemoaned the media for the “garbage … and trash that’s written about me,” KABC broke in to inform viewers that it would have a cheesy interview with a doctor discussing bleaching for Jackson’s skin pigmentation ailment.

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