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Smith's death 'a real feast' for the media

February 10, 2007|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

Hours after Anna Nicole Smith's death, people across the globe tried to cash in on her celebrity by listing for sale items such as bobblehead dolls and poker chips bearing her image.

But positioned to benefit the most were media outlets that tried to feed the enormous appetite of its audiences. The frenzy promised to continue into the weekend with tonight's airing of "Death of a Centerfold" on NBC's "Dateline," to be followed by Fox News' hourlong special "Anna Nicole: Tragic Beauty."

"This is just a real feast for some people out there and particularly on the Internet," said Larry Pryor, a professor of journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. "For every person in public life there is a blogger, or in this case many bloggers, behind them."

The mysterious death in a Florida hotel room that saddened friends and complicated a paternity fight over Smith's 5-month-old daughter also produced some odd and opportunistic commerce.

Less than half an hour after Smith's death became public Thursday, memorabilia from her short life began to roll out on EBay. By Friday afternoon, nearly 2,700 items -- including Anna Nicole bobblehead dolls and Anna Nicole poker chips ($122.86 for the complete set) -- had been listed by the online auction site.

Another website offered nearly 20 different T-shirts bidding farewell to the model, television personality and professional vamp. They ranged from the restrained "Anna Nicole R.I.P." to the provocative "I fathered Anna Nicole's baby and all I got was this stupid T-shirt."

With legal expert Greta van Susteren leading the charge, Fox's prime-time viewership on the night of Smith's death jumped to 2,225,000, an increase of at least 400,000 over a typical weeknight, the cable station said. Traffic on entertainment and personality websites leapt 54% compared with the day before Smith's death became public, said Matt Tatham of Hitwise, a firm that tracks Web traffic. More than 14,000 blogs posted information, opinions and rants about her death Thursday, according to another tracking service, Technorati.com.

Although the story may have been stirring up an audience, mainstream news organizations demonstrated varying degrees of comfort with the story of Smith, notorious for her nude modeling, Sybaritic lifestyle and, particularly, her brief marriage to Texas oil billionaire J. Howard Marshall II, who was more than 60 years her senior.

The Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post played the story on their front pages Friday morning, and The Times continued to feature the story on the paper's website throughout the day, with a photo at the top of the home page for latimes.com and links to related features. The Post took a similar approach on Washingtonpost.com, with somewhat less prominent display for the story.

The New York Times ran the story on Page 12 of its main news section and, by day's end Friday, did not even feature Smith on the home page for NYtimes.com. Although the paper did not overtly draw attention to the story with splashy coverage, it increased Web readership by purchasing a "sponsored link" to "Anna Nicole Smith" on Google.

That meant anyone perusing the search engine for the model's name would see a link to NYtimes.com most of the day Friday, which helped make the story the single most read item during the day on the newspaper's website.

"That means they can have it both ways, in effect," USC's Pryor said. "They can draw traffic to a sensational story on their website but, on the face of it, they don't appear sensational."

Industry observers said it was becoming increasingly common for news organizations to buy search result positions on sites such as Google and Yahoo. The vast majority of visitors to news sites now come through search engines and alternative portals, rather than the outlet's own home page.

Website TMZ.com also paid for a sponsored link on Google. It saw its traffic zoom 81% after the death of the 39-year-old blond bombshell, Hitwise said. The website -- which gained notoriety in late July by breaking news of the drunken, anti-Semitic tirade of actor Mel Gibson -- tried to keep viewership of the Smith story high with a variety of new postings Friday.

"The trick is to add information throughout the day and night, so people always feel like they are getting something new," said Alan Citron, general manager of TMZ.com.

For both television and the Internet, media executives said the payoff from a surge in viewership was delayed. Current ad spots, for the most part, have already been sold. But future ad rates could increase because of the kind of traffic built by provocative stories like the one about Smith's demise.

Hani Durzy, a spokesman for EBay, said it would be "disrespectful" for the auction firm to track commerce after someone's death. He called the large increase in Anna Nicole Smith listings this week "a mirror on pop culture.... It shows that people have different figures that they love, respect, admire and want to remember."

Jeffrey Shore, creator of "The Anna Nicole Show" that featured Smith on E Television from 2002 to 2004, said he understood the frenzy but was saddened by it.

"At the end of the day, she was a very nice person. Simple, but nice," Shore said. "She had this Southern upbringing and this nice way about her and very little of that ever comes out because of the way she portrayed herself on camera and some of the things that she did. When you see some of the things that are happening, it's kind of ghoulish and just too bad."

One website noticeably abstained from capitalizing on the story. Annanicole.com featured a black home page, empty but for her photo and the years of her birth and death, 1967 and 2007.

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james.rainey@latimes.com

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