Verdict a Thriller for Online News

Jun 20, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The biggest media star that rose out of the Michael Jackson trial, which concluded last week with across-the-board not guilty verdicts, was online delivery of news information and video.

When an alert went out that the jury had reached a verdict that was scheduled to be delivered at 4:30 p.m. (ET), news Web sites became the destinations for record numbers of Internet users who wanted their Jacko TV when it happened.

“As news breaks, you can watch the numbers flow,” said Catherine Captain, VP of marketing for MSNBC.com. “We are starting to approach audience sizes rivaling TV.”

On June 13, the day a California jury acquitted the pop star of child molestation and other related charges, the online news viewership numbers surged.

CNN.com messaged more than 2 million people Monday afternoon that the verdict was pending. It reported nearly 77 million page views that day, the highest number for the year. The numbers topped the 71 million page views recorded April 1, the Friday before Pope John Paul II died. CNN does not release figures on streaming video usage.

MSNBC.com logged 49 million page views. More than 630,000 streams of the Jackson verdict were watched, making it the most-watched verdict video in the Web site’s history. By comparison, the conviction of Scott Peterson in the murder of his wife and unborn child produced 245,317 requests for video. Coverage of Pope John Paul II’s funeral generated nearly 2 million requests, MSNBC.com’s biggest streaming day ever.

Foxnews.com had its biggest day ever June 13, tallying more than 15 million page views, more than 3 million of those recorded between 4 and 5 p.m. (ET), when people were waiting for the verdict to be read. Foxnews.com also reported 423,000 requests for video that day, some 250,000 of them for Jackson coverage.

Courttv.com logged more than 4.7 million page views last Monday, a 148 percent increase over the previous Monday.

A spokeswoman for ABC News Now said the network’s broadband subscription service had its biggest day yet, peaking at 5:05 p.m. (ET) with more than 140,000 simultaneous online viewers watching live News Now coverage via AOL, SBC Yahoo DSL, Comcast High Speed and BellSouth FastAccess.

AOL News, which offered ABC News and CNN video, reported 681,000 requests for Jackson streaming video, peaking with 57,500 simultaneous live views, according to a spokesman. In comparison, there were 25,000 simultaneous live views during a presidential debate in 2004, and 22,000 during former President Reagan’s funeral last June. For the day, AOL News recorded 9.5 million page views.

Access Drives Boom

What’s driving this streaming boom is increasing access, industry insiders said. Statistics don’t always match, but there is agreement that more than 50 percent of the country has broadband access at home and perhaps 70 percent or more has broadband access at work.

“We’ve hit that critical mass,” said Bert Solivan, VP of news information and general manager of Foxnews.com.

The improved viewing experience has also boosted demand.

“Our readers are always clamoring for more,” Mr. Solivan said. His site has responded by making video more prevalent and by moving toward Web-only video. The move started with the recent debut of a “Web show” titled “The Real Deal” by Mike Straka, who pens columns for Foxnews.com in between duties as the Web site’s director of operations and special projects for Foxnews.com and director of Fox News Radio Web operations.

Executives said they see even bigger business down the road for broadband news on demand.

“I think it’s huge,” David Payne, senior VP and general manager of CNN.com, said of the segment’s future. He added that consumers’ short attention spans and desire for immediate gratification will keep demand growing.

“At some point the efficiency of the Web and that [broadband] capability make it the medium of choice,” he said.

Mr. Payne said CNN.com’s model is to rig the site to be able to handle traffic 10 times heavier than the previous record event.

“We are adding capacity as we speak,” he said.

“With every news event we’re breaking records,” Ms. Captain said. “The definition of TV is changing. TV as we know it is evolving into other platforms.”

Meanwhile, Fox News Channel was the first choice of TV viewers during the 15 minutes in which the Jackson verdict was read, according to Nielsen Media Research. From 5-5:15 p.m., Fox averaged more than 4.8 million viewers, compared with an average of 1.7 million during prime time the previous week. CNN averaged nearly 3.5 million viewers versus an average of 695,000 viewers the previous week. MSNBC averaged more than 1.4 million viewers, compared with the previous week’s 350,000 viewers in prime time.

Court TV said it attracted its largest audience ever, 3.4 million viewers, during the same quarter-hour, versus 886,000 prime-time viewers the previous week.

Nielsen said coverage on 11 English-language broadcast and cable networks averaged upward of 28.1 million viewers from 4:43-6 p.m., while Jackson coverage on Spanish-language Telemundo and Univision averaged nearly 2.5 million viewers from 4:48-5:30 p.m.

In a limited comparison, Nielsen archives show that an average of 33.3 million people watched Princess Diana’s funeral on eight American networks in 1997 and 22.5 million watched President Clinton apologize for not being forthcoming about Monica Lewinsky in 1998.