E!’s Plan for Jackson Trial Sparks Controversy

Jan 17, 2005  •  Post A Comment

E!’s plan to air half-hour daily re-enactments of the Michael Jackson child molestation trial set off a range of reactions from network competitors, press and pundits last week at the Television Critics Association semiannual press tour in Los Angeles.

Critics in attendance burst into laughter when Ted Harbert, CEO and president of E! Networks, informed the group of the channel’s plans. The moment came at the end of an otherwise well-received TCA session for E!, which featured Wayne Newton touting his forthcoming reality show “The Entertainer.”

“We believe verbatim re-enactments of selective testimony along with expert analysis is a great way to keep our worldwide audience informed on the daily developments of this eagerly anticipated trial,” Mr. Harbert said.

When reporters expressed concern that actor interpretations of testimony could taint public opinion or that E! was seeking to mock Mr. Jackson, Mr. Harbert said the segments would be presented accurately and tastefully.

“I don’t think this is close to crossing any line that hasn’t been jumped over about a thousand times by different outlets,” he said. “I’m a person that believes strongly in that what we need to bring to television is some taste. … I understand why you’re laughing, but I also understand putting on television shows that people are interested in is what [my] job is. The tone of this broadcast is going to be deadly serious.”

But some had a tough time warming to the concept.

“Oh, you’re kidding,” said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, when told of the show. “It’s a bad idea because it takes a current news event and turns it into fiction. It really blurs the line. Unfortunately, the people who get hurt are those who deliver the real news and the consumer.”

Court TV is also gearing up to cover the Jackson trial. General Manager Marc Juris said he sees the E! show as the natural extension of the media’s relationship with celebrities.

“The media has a very intimate relationship with celebrities; we know everything about them,” he said. “So after setting up that expectation, it’s hard to [make an exception]. I think what people want to know is what the courtroom testimony means, and nobody covers that better than we do.”

CNN’s announcement of a prime-time courtroom analysis show for Headline News, “Nancy Grace,” was also seen as a programming move designed to capitalize on the pending Jackson trial.

After speaking at panels for both CNN and Court TV, legal analyst Ms. Grace said she is working on a book about “travesties that threaten Lady Justice,” but said she does not believe re-enactments were one of them.

“Everybody’s so concerned about the Jackson re-enactments; they should be concerned about the [allegations of] child molestation,” Ms. Grace said. “Mock trials have been around forever. My only concern is will it affect the outcome of the trial, and I doubt it..”

The Jackson re-enactments will not be the first time E! has produced a series of celebrity trial re-enactments. In 1996 E! aired re-enactments of the O.J. Simpson civil trial, which boosted the network’s time slot averages.

This is also not the first time Mr. Harbert has used Mr. Jackson to make waves during the TCA press tour. While president of ABC Entertainment in 1995, Mr. Harbert announced a Michael Jackson music video special at TCA on the heels of ABC News landing a much-sought-after interview with Mr. Jackson and his then-spouse Lisa Marie Presley. Mr. Harbert and ABC News were accused of engaging in a quid pro quo exchange for the interview, which they denied.