Michael Jackson's internet funeral: One last revolution

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As Michael Jackson's family, friends, and fans say their final goodbyes today, the King of Pop is leaving the spotlight with the same extravagance that once characterized his presence on the public stage. Over a million and a half people registered for a chance at one of the 17,500 free tickets to the memorial service at Staples Center, and thousands will watch a live newscast of the event at the Nokia Theater, which is located near the site. In fact, 88 theaters across the country will broadcast the coverage on their screens.

These impressive statistics, however, pale beside the almost unimaginable number of viewers who will watch the event either on the internet or television. An estimated three billion -- or almost half of the world's population -- will be tuning in to say goodbye to Jackson. By comparison, the most-watched television program in history, the last episode of MASH, had a mere 106 million viewers.
It seems likely that Jackson's funeral will eventually come to represent a major shift in power from television's stranglehold on cultural events to internet domination. Earlier this year, Barack Obama's inauguration gave a hint of how powerful internet video may eventually become when it attracted an estimated 13 million online viewers, to a television viewership of 37.8 million. By comparison, Ronald Reagan's 1981 inauguration drew 41.8 million viewers.

While America's television audience is gargantuan, viewership explodes when the event is perceived to have international interest. For example, when Princess Diana and Prince Charles married in 1981, the blessed event drew an estimated 750 million viewers from around the globe. Sixteen years later, when she died, the "People's Princess'" funeral drew approximately 2.5 billion viewers. This means that more than a third of all human beings drawing breath in 1997 were glued to their television screens.

In some ways, it only seems fitting that Jackson, a pioneer in the history of media, should inspire one more record-breaking event. After all, while his music and videos changed the world, the singer's excesses were almost as famous. For example, Thriller, his most famous video, cost five times as much as the average video at the time, and clocked in at an insanely long 17 minutes. Featuring the voice of horror legend Vincent Price, it also employed Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker and top film director John Landis.

While Thriller was the most famous of Jackson's videos, it was just the tip of the iceberg on his quest for extravagance and excellence. Captain EO, the extended sci-fi video that he made for Disney, was produced by George Lucas and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Meanwhile, Bad, the second entry in the "street-fight-cum-dancefest" style that Jackson tried to resuscitate, was directed by Martin Scorcese.

Jackson's personal life was no less baroque. Neverland ranch, the massive 2,676-acre estate that he built for himself in the 1980s, featured two private railroads, a zoo, and an amusement park, complete with rides. According to Vanity Fair, upkeep alone on the property costs $4 million per year. Even his home in Bahrain, which he bought to escape from the financial and media pressures of his life in America, was a palace that cost an estimated $8 million.

As Jackson exits stage left, he leaves behind a legacy that, in its own way, hearkens back to the glory -- and grotesquerie -- of golden-age Hollywood. It is only fitting, then, that the man who inaugurated so many media revolutions should bring in just one more with his final public act.

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