A news media village has sprung up outside the Criminal Courts Building. (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)
It's been a big week for HLN cable TV. The station's full stable of hosts, augmented by personalities from sister network CNN, supercharged with a squadron of "experts" and seasoned with a sprinkling of fanatics positioned outside the courthouse, told us in no uncertain terms that this week was "riveting," "explosive" and "heartbreaking."
Jane Velez-Mitchell, host of the nightly "Issues" on HLN, couldn't resist putting the marker out there as the manslaughter trial of Dr. Conrad Murray got underway. This would be, she intoned with a distinct lean into the camera, "the trial of the century!"
HLN, the Turner Broadcasting property previously know as Headline News, has a lot of work to do to make that fantasy come true. After the opening days this week, the cable station's viewers were not even making the People vs. Murray the trial of the year. About 40% fewer viewers tuned to HLN, on average, than watched the opening days of the trial of "tot mom" Casey Anthony.
The more its audience of housewives, legal buffs, drama addicts, shut-ins and irony fetishists (the latter love HLN supernova Nancy Grace for her spitting pro-prosecution fury) fails to warm to stem-to-stern Murray trial coverage, the more HLN seems intent on pumping up the drama. That means actual trial testimony but, more importantly, a fevered retelling of the Jackson death "story."
One would have to be stubbornly detached from the culture to not find parts of the trial compelling, beginning on Day 1 with the recorded voice of an apparently drug-addled Jackson, haltingly describing his obsession with wowing the audience one more time. It would be hard not to be touched by testimony that described how Jackson's young children were close by as their father lay dead, or dying, in a Holmby Hills mansion in June 2009.
But the Murray trial saddles HLN and other media outlets less with those striking moments and more with a tale that seems all too familiar — the brilliant but tormented entertainer who becomes victim of his own compulsions. An inattentive, irresponsible, even criminal, doctor may have hastened the ending. Still, hasn't most of the audience already decided that Jackson was already doomed by his own desperate and addictive personality?
Cable television is not a place, however, for readily accepting what is. It's a place for reimagining what might be. HLN has aimed every ounce of its firepower at expanding and extending the Jackson story. That means dragging in front of its cameras CNN medical authority Dr. Sanjay Gupta, HLN house shrink Dr. Drew Pinsky, a gallery of former Jackson family employees and, of course, every pop legal theorist not lashed to a trial lectern. "Unleash the lawyers!" Grace commands. HLN obliges.
HLN showpersons need not dwell on trial testimony. On Friday morning Velez-Mitchell gushed over Janet Jackson's shoes. "Janet, Janet, you look beautiful," the onetime L.A. anchorwoman shouted as the pop diva glided serenely into the courthouse. Fellow trial anchor Ryan Smith referring to the Jackson family, was "amazed at their strength in that courtroom," adding: "We are talking about their son, their brother, the king of pop."
But those moments at the criminal courts building haven't proved a huge ratings winner. After the first three days of testimony this week, HLN's total daily audience averaged just 281,000. That compares with the average 475,000 who tuned in each day as the Anthony trial, a real HLN blockbuster, opened in Florida.
To hear the cable commentators tell it, there was a "wild" scene outside the courthouse. After interviewing a Jackson fan from Russia on the Temple Street sidewalk Friday morning, Velez-Mitchell declared: "These people here represent hundreds of thousands, millions of people, who are fascinated by this case."
Perhaps. But when I walked over to the courthouse myself at midday Thursday for a look, there were not even two dozen people penned in between two yellow police lines. You had the obligatory guy in a sequined glove, a handful of folks with placards and a white-robed man who described himself as an anesthesiologist, dragging a rolling IV bag and campaigning for better sedation monitoring. Still, I've seen more people lined up on Friday night at my local Blockbuster.
Not far away, I talked to a television sound man. He was happy to be working, though a bit tired of the crammed sidewalk scrum and the "lunatic fringe" fans he has to elbow for space.
"I wonder how this can be in even the first five stories in the news," said the sound guy, who didn't want to give his name for fear of angering his bosses. "It's so inconsequential. It's a sad commentary on what we care about." A fleet of satellite trucks and news vans crowded two entire sides of a city block, confirming that his opinion did not hold much sway.