Jackson's Death Marks Turning Point for Media Players

TMZ, BET and iTunes Realize Boost in Visibility, Viewers and Sales

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Michael Jackson's death prompted an onslaught of memorial media coverage arguably not seen since Princess Diana's passing in 1997 or Elvis Presley's in 1977.

Michael Jackson performs in Singapore in 1996.
Michael Jackson performs in Singapore in 1996. Credit: AP
But when the King of Rock 'n' Roll died 32 years ago this August, the event was chronicled by only three broadcast networks, and the music industry had no digital downloads or SoundScan. Now the abundance of media platforms makes the King of Pop's death bigger in scope, and it's responsible for big boosts to three media players -- TMZ, BET and iTunes.

Scoop of the century
TMZ got the celebrity news break of the year when it was the first to report Mr. Jackson's death June 25, hours before news organizations such as the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and CNN could even confirm. The celeb-gossip site, a joint venture between AOL and Warner Bros.' TV arm, Telepictures, benefited mightily from not only breaking the news but also from being the source cited by all other traditional news outlets in their reports. The site reported a 33% lift in unique visitors over an average day, breaking the traffic record last set the day that news broke about Chris Brown assaulting Rihanna; June became a record month for TMZ in the process.

Its mobile site, likewise, easily passed its previous high-water marks. It hasn't let up in coverage since, posting more than 150 Michael Jackson stories in the week following the singer's death.

TMZ, which has also been covering the Jackson story on its eponymous TV show, coincidentally just hired its first dedicated ad-sales team, starting July 1, as the site begins to pull away from relying on AOL sibling Platform A, said Pam Russo, general manager at the site. "We have advertisers that buy us both on TV and on the website, but we haven't really gone out with that great multiplatform push," she said.

TMZ got the celebrity news break of the year when it was the first to report Mr. Jackson's death June 25.
TMZ got the celebrity news break of the year when it was the first to report Mr. Jackson's death June 25.
Audience will expand
TMZ, notorious for its anything-goes approach to celeb gossip (which includes paying sources in some cases, a practice common among British tabloids but anathema to most U.S. news organizations), will gain regard in some, but not all, advertisers' eyes, said Rachel Ooms, VP-group media director at Moxie Interactive. "For some of our larger brands, I have the same stance of: I'm not really comfortable running there because it doesn't necessarily align with this particular client's goals," she said. "They don't want to be seen as almost an ambulance chaser. But if you have a really fun brand that wants to be in front of 18- to 24-year-olds, it's not an unsafe place to be. There were a lot of midtier brands that this is exciting to them. If they had a small buy on TMZ their visibility just spiked."

"It's going to be ongoing," Ms. Ooms added. "This is obviously the news article of the year that people are going to monetize."

Mohan Renganathan, VP-global digital director at MediaVest, said TMZ's scoop will probably help expand its audience, which could in turn attract advertisers that had been looking for more scale. But marketers that don't want to be near TMZ's kind of content still won't, despite the solid scoop. "Advertisers who are tolerant and willing to play in those types of content environments will continue to," Mr. Renganathan said. "And those that don't? I don't think this really changes the equation."

Record ratings
Also gaining new traffic was BET, which reformatted its BET Awards -- set to take place a mere three days after Mr. Jackson's death -- to double as a tribute to the music legend. The ceremony broke all the network's records to become the top-rated cable telecast of 2009, with 10.65 million viewers, beating the June 22 episode of TLC's water-cooler phenomenon "Jon & Kate Plus Eight." As a result, BET scored its highest-rated week in network history, as well as finishing the second quarter as the network's most-watched quarter in history.

Sponsors such as Procter & Gamble's My Black Is Beautiful, Ford and Kmart also got incrementally larger audiences as a result of the larger-than-usual interest in this year's BET Awards.

Mr. Jackson's music saw a major resurgence as well, thanks in large part to iTunes. Apple's music store anchored the 422,000 albums Mr. Jackson sold the week ending June 28, 57% of which were from digital-music sales, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Those figures were up 4,000% from the week prior, when the Michael Jackson catalog sold an aggregate 10,000 albums. Three of Mr. Jackson's albums claimed the top three spots in comprehensive album sales, beating new releases from the Black Eyed Peas, Jonas Brothers and the Dave Matthews Band for three days' worth of sales.

Silvio Pietroluongo, Billboard's director of charts, said Michael Jackson will likely sell more albums than any other artist who's passed away during the SoundScan era, more than Kurt Cobain, the Notorious B.I.G. or even 2Pac. "You'd have to go back to Elvis and John Lennon to artists that transcended a singular format, had that mass appeal among music fans." Mr. Jackson's music covered so many diverse sectors that Billboard's country section was the only one that failed to mention Mr. Jackson's passing in the music trade's current issue.

'Too much'
Elsewhere, media outlets tried hard to meet massive demand for coverage without looking like exploiters -- never an easy path to find with such a well-known figure. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press said last week that 64% of respondents in its weekly survey called the coverage "too much."

Programming about Mr. Jackson "is pretty attractive, because it's news, and it's news about a beloved pop icon who, let's face it, had idiosyncrasies," said Shari Anne Brill, senior VP-director of strategic audience analysis at Aegis Group's Carat media-buying firm. Marketers are likely to feel comfortable being associated with Jackson programming that is "handled responsibly," she said, and not material that leans toward the salacious. "Just because your ratings spike doesn't make [the programs] more attractive," she cautioned. And yet, "there's so much mystery surrounding how he passed away, I could see endless possibilities," she added.

Of course, the longer the superstar's postmortem coverage lasts, the less enticing it is to some. Shelley Watson, senior VP-director of entertainment at RPA, an independent agency in Santa Monica, Calif., would be interested in a large-scale event, such as a tribute show that was broadcast across multiple media outlets, but doesn't necessarily see the need to run out and buy advertising in a run-of-the-mill news program.

At the same time, however, many news and magazine sites gobbled up record page views as people sought news on the singer's unexpected death. People.com recorded its highest Friday traffic on June 26, 63% above average for the day, according to People; its mobile site got 4 million page views, 10 times normal.

People magazine

Special print issues
In print, titles from Hip Hop Weekly to Us Weekly to Jet published or planned special issues. People magazine quickly assembled a double issue with an increased print run and featuring a second cover on the flip side leading into a 27-page tribute section. The front cover reads: "The Talent and Tragedy: Michael Jackson," but People is printing two different back covers. "It was important to People to differentiate themselves on the newsstand," a spokeswoman said.

Publishers also rushed to get specials and book-a-zine tributes on newsstands. Time magazine got a 64-page special extra issue out by June 29, selling for $5.99, with a special Pepsi ad reading "You Will Always Be The King of Pop" on the back cover. It was Time's first extra between regular issues since the days following the Sept. 11 attacks.

USA Today had a 96-page glossy commemorative selling for $6.99 by June 29 and a 40-page tabloid-size special edition selling for $4.95 by June 30. People's book-a-zine will appear in softcover for $11.99 on July 10, with a hardcover version planned for Aug. 11. Rolling Stone, which isn't publishing another regular issue until July 24, is also publishing a $9.99 book-a-zine that day; it's already increased the print order to 700,000 copies from 400,000. Its last such book-a-zine, a December book on Barack Obama's election, sold 300,000 copies. National Magazine Co., Hearst's main business in England, pulled together a 132-page commemorative magazine that reached newsstands by June 30, with distribution of 200,000 and a cover price of £2.99.

The video-game angle
It was hard to find an arena in which media didn't do something to mark the occasion, even in video games. Electronic Arts' "Battlefield Heroes" said players would soon be able to download free Michael Jackson costumes styled after the singer's looks in videos for "Smooth Criminal" and "Bad."

Online, sudden interest in Mr. Jackson's back catalog is playing out on YouTube, where his videos now account for seven of the top 10 videos overall and 18 of the top 20 music videos. Singles such as "Thriller" and "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" have racked up tens of millions of views in the past week. Mr. Jackson's YouTube channel has had nearly 5 million views since the artist's death.


Mr. Jackson's label, Sony Music Entertainment, is a YouTube partner, so both can sell advertising on official videos. Sony is also a participant in YouTube's Content ID program, so any video uploaded by a user can be claimed by Sony and then have ads inserted. Overlay ads on Mr. Jackson's videos also have a "buy" button that connects either to iTunes or Amazon, and YouTube says transactions are up 42 times over the prior week.

In contrast, videos of YouTube's last music sensation, Susan Boyle -- the "dowdy diva" and star of the last season of "Britain's Got Talent" -- were viewed more than 100 million times on the web, according to Visible Measures, but since Fremantle Media had no deal with YouTube, some of those views resulted in no ad revenue for anyone.

Not every media outlet got to feed reader demand for Michael Jackson coverage. Five days after his death, Vibe magazine's owners told staff the title was shutting down. "We were assigning and editing a Michael Jackson tribute issue when we got the news," said Danyel Smith, editor in chief.

The wider audience
Much recent Michael Jackson-related programming on broadcast TV has hit a broader audience.

According to Nielsen Media Research, a CBS News special broadcast about Michael Jackson that aired June 25 -- the day of the musician's death -- reached about 7.5 million viewers. A similar "20/20" broadcast at 9 p.m. on ABC reached about 8.2 million viewers. A two-hour "Dateline" special on NBC that started at 9 p.m. reached about 5.6 million live plus same-day viewers.

To put things in perspective, a rebroadcast of "CSI: Miami" on CBS earlier that week reached about 8 million viewers and a new Tuesday-night episode of "America's Got Talent" on NBC reached about 11.5 million viewers, according to Nielsen.

Fox also tried to get in on the game, albeit with lesser results. The News Corp. network broadcast a rerun of "American Idol" during which contestants sang songs associated with Mr. Jackson, but the program reached about 4.2 million viewers, according to Nielsen. A Fox spokeswoman said the rebroadcast represented a way "to give fans a way to celebrate his music," but indicated the network had no plans for future programming related to the singer.

Other networks clearly see opportunities. Last week's Thursday edition of NBC's "Today" show featured exclusive footage of host Matt Lauer visiting Mr. Jackson's Neverland ranch, while ABC News planned to include new segments related to the celebrity on its Friday edition of "20/20," said Paige Green, an ABC News spokeswoman. ABC News said future programming related to the star remains "to be determined" but "there probably will be a chance." NBC News and CBS News did not respond to queries seeking comment.

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Nat Ives, Michael Learmonth and Brian Steinberg contributed to this report.

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