15 mil Brits watch exclu ITV interview

LONDON — If reaction in the UK is any indication, Jacko could be boffo for ABC Thursday night.

A whopping 15 million British viewers tuned in Monday to watch pop superstar Michael Jackson claim he’s never had plastic surgery and confess he still hosts “sleepovers” with children.

ABC, which paid Granada Intl. between $4 million and $5 million for rights to the documentary “Living With Michael Jackson,” is expecting similarly strong returns this week, even as the special airs opposite NBC’s and CBS’ juggernaut Thursday skeds.

Alphabet web will air “Living” as part of a special “20/20″ Thursday at 8 p.m. The program had been slated to run on Friday, but it was moved up a night after ABC decided to shelve the telepic “NTSB: The Crash of Flight 323″ (Daily Variety, Feb. 4) in the wake of the space shuttle disaster.

Interest in the Jackson spec has grown in the past few days, as word of the interview’s contents were released to the press. Tuesday’s New York Post trumpeted the “Wacko Jacko” interview on its front page.

NBC even bumped new episodes of “Scrubs” and “Good Morning Miami” Thursday, replacing them with repeats of “Friends” and “Good Morning Miami,” to blunt the impact.

ITV’s presentation of “Living With Michael Jackson” performed far beyond the commercial net’s expectations.

ITV, which was expecting 10 million to watch the doc, is over the moon with the ratings and the revenue it generated. The show peaked at 15.1 million at 10 p.m.; an estimated 1.6 million recorded the doc.

It also generated $4.8 million in ad coin, with advertisers including Guinness and Rover shelling out an estimated $160,000 per 30-second spot, according to industry experts.

Martin Bashir, who has clinched exclusive interviews with such high-profile people as Princess Diana, has been trying to secure an interview with Jackson for five years.

The wait paid off: The one-hour, 50-minute doc, which took eight months to film, exposed Jackson as a deeply disturbed man with an unhealthy obsession with children, shopping, plastic surgery and Peter Pan. One TV exec branded the doc the “longest suicide note in history.”

Barbara Walters will host ABC’s run of the special.

ABC secured U.S. rights from Granada after it outbid other nets, including NBC.

(Michael Schneider contributed to this report.)

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