Jonathan Storm: TV brings Jackson tribute home

Posted: July 08, 2009

That old girl, television, and the people who work her, can still surprise a cynical guy.

Michael Jackson's memorial yesterday combined the best parts of a TV awards show and an old-fashioned revival to provide emotional clout. The paid TV droners mostly stayed out of the way, and the result was a rare and powerful global shared moment.

Multitudes cheated at work and watched streaming video on the Internet, but whether one billion watched worldwide (that number is usually the smallest thrown around for the Really Big Shows), there seemed to be one billion different TV trucks on hand. 6ABC's noon Action News had a nice piece on that international coverage, talking to German and Chinese teleworkers.

America's network affiliates and cable news outlets gave up a lot of revenue - three hours' worth - and Fox and NBC gave up talking completely as the service/performance unfolded without commercial interruption.

At first, the missing spouting, such a constant feature of "news" coverage of events like this one, was discomforting. It's unheard of not to hear it. But you came to trust that the two networks would eventually put up a graphic identifying the congresswoman from Texas or the kid singer who very clearly was not Michael Jackson, but the slightly less well-known Shaheen Jafargholi.

In the emotional community of the moment, it was not terribly important to know that Jafargholi is a 12-year-old Welsh-Iranian who has performed as young Michael in the Thriller-Live stage show and competed against Susan Boyle on Britain's Got Talent.

Good job, Fox and NBC. And good job to you, too, choreographer-director Kenny Ortega (Dirty Dancing, High School Musical) and producer Ken Ehrlich (Emmys, Grammys, and bucketfuls of TV concerts) for putting on such an emotional, spiritual, unprecedented TV memorial on such short notice.

CBS and ABC insisted on filling the empty spaces with commentary. Katie Couric was so badly victimized by ambient noise and lousy audio that you frequently couldn't understand what she was saying. Charlie Gibson did get to point out that Barbara Walters, as ubiquitous as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, had observed that Michael's children, excepting daughter, Paris, 11, weren't much being moved by the proceedings.

Paris got the whole world crying with her when she sobbed at the end, "Ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine." That was just after the multitude of Michael Jackson's family gently nudged Jesse Jackson off the stage.

The Rev. Al Sharpton got a plum spot in the proceedings, rightly identifying the crucial role of Michael Jackson in race relations:

"He created a comfort level where people who felt they were separate became interconnected with his music. It wasn't strange to us to watch Oprah on TV. It wasn't strange to watch Tiger Woods golf. Those young kids grew up from being teenage comfortable fans of Michael to being 40 years old and being comfortable to vote for a person of color to be the president of the United States of America."

Sharpton gave away much of that credibility when he addressed the children of the King of Pop to say, "Wasn't nothing strange about your daddy."

There were references to Jackson's weirdness, the most touching in a tribute from Brooke Shields, who talked about the undying bond between the two childhood performers.

But the memorial was a celebration of his life and music, and also an extremely prominent, for secular television, Christian celebration. Lionel Richie's "Jesus Is Love" was a highlight, as was Usher's "Gone Too Soon," in a series of laudable, often truly emotional performances, even if first act Mariah Carey took a second to get tuned up.

The impact of Jackson's life and music - "the soundtrack of our lives," said NBC's Michael Okwu - on the world, and especially on people born between 1960 and 1990, is difficult to exaggerate. Fuddy-duddies, me sometimes included, should just keep their mouths shut and let the zillions who loved him have their moment.

Just as a good portion of TV did yesterday afternoon.


Contact television critic Jonathan Storm

at 215-854-5618 or jstorm@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/jonathanstorm.

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