As Michael Jackson’s death was confirmed late Thursday afternoon, the networks scrambled to put together last-minute news specials.
Just 90 minutes before primetime was set to begin on the East Coast, ABC, NBC and CBS quickly yanked repeats off their skeds in order to run Jackson specials out of their news departments.
ABC and NBC had already raced to slate 10 p.m. specials on the passing of “Charlie’s Angels” star Farrah Fawcett; with Jackson’s death, the nets were forced to block out another hour of programming to deal with the news.
Execs at both nets had caught wind early this week that Fawcett was near the end of her life, and by the night before her death, ABC had already slated a Thursday-night special, “Farrah Fawcett: Her Life, Her Loves, Her Legacy.”
Following the Jackson news, ABC then also scheduled news special “The Life and Death of Michael Jackson” at 9 p.m.
Barbara Walters introduced the two-hour block, while Martin Bashir – who was behind the famed 2003 documentary “Living With Michael Jackson” – anchored the Jackson tribute. Walters returned to anchor the Fawcett special at 10.
“The news division is very well positioned to crash on a major story like this,” said ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider. “ABC has done scores of interviews with Jackson over the years. The whole news division is focused on getting this hour on tonight at 9.”
Over at NBC, the Peacock decided on Thursday to preempt its 10 p.m. hour for a Fawcett special, postponing an episode of “The Listener” until next week. With the Jackson news, Peacock then yanked its 9 p.m. repeats and package a two-hour “Dateline NBC” devoted to news of both deaths.
CBS, meanwhile, preempted its 10 p.m. “Mentalist” repeat (which moved to 8 p.m.) with its own Jackson special – also titled “The Life and Death of Michael Jackson.”
“Early Show” anchor Harry Smith hosted the special with “The Insider’s” Lara Spencer; the death of Fawcett was also discussed.
Finally, on Fox, judge Nigel Lythgoe paid tribute to Fawcett, Jackson and even Ed McMahon during the live “So You Think You Can Dance” results show.
With the Jackson news likely to dominate headlines in the days to come, the network news teams won’t get much rest even after cranking out tonight’s specials.
“I’m sure every executive producer is thinking how this will impact their show in the coming days,” Schneider said.
Schneider added that it was too soon to tell whether the Alphabet would rerun the top-rated Bashir special.
Meanwhile, on the cable network side, MTV – the net put on the map by Jackson (and to some degree, vice versa) -preempted its programming to do something it almost never does anymore (outside of the early morning): air musicvideos. Jackson concert footage and videos were being telecast on the cabler during the 7 p.m. hour on the East Coast. (MTV’s West Coast feed, however, was still stuck airing other programming.)
According to MTV, the channel and its sisters MTV2, MTV Tres and MTVU went on with Jackson videos around 6:30 p.m. ET; MTV was also breaking in with MTV News segments featuring personality Sway. The cabler also went live at 9 p.m. ET with a one-hour special about Jackson, featuring videos and celebrity/musician reactions.
On BET, “106 and Park” was interviewing music stars, such as Ludacris, about Jackson via phone, while most of the show’s audience quietly, blankly looked on.
Bio channel, meanwhile, was set to air the special “Bio Remembers: Michael Jackson” on Saturday. And more tributes and specials were expected to run all weekend long.
Several nets had already been planning Fawcett tributes before the Jackson death moved the attention away. NBC plans to rebroadcast the two-hour special “Farrah’s Story” on Friday at 9 p.m.; that same special will also air on sister cabler Oxygen on Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
TV Land, meanwhile, planned to run the first two episodes of its 2005 series “Chasing Farrah” on Saturday at 9 p.m. And Bio had its spec “Bio Remembers: Farrah Fawcett” set for Monday at 10 p.m.