How Does a Michael Jackson Hype Happen?

For months, the entertainment press has with its relentless hype all but guaranteed us that This Is It, the Michael Jackson rehearsal documentary would become if not the highest grossing film of all time, certainly one of the top three.

How does one properly cover hype? If you're an old time news organ, or even if you are a new one, trying to stay in front of the hype machine, nowadays driven by forces you hardly understand, is a perpetual conundrum. Trying to sort out the fake viral phenomenon from the genuine ones is a losing battle for those of us who haven't been teenagers in the past three decades or so. (And don't think google or twitter trends will save you! Those are for old people too!)

So most of the time what you get is the dog chasing the car, the news media attempting to cover the fan worship of a Twilight, but usually coming on board long after the frenzy has crested, and talking about it in a way which only emphasizes how not-in-touch with it they were in the first place. Watching the great news organs of our land, one can smoothly chart the wave of coverage that sweeps ashore right after everyone has left the beaches.

The cycle is generally as follows:

1. An event occurs, or is announced.
2. Excitement builds.
3. The frenzy gets loud enough that it makes itself heard all the way on the old media mountaintop.
4. Old media assigns a zillion stories.
5. People get bored and move on to something else.
6. The assigned articles hit the front pages and covers.
7. The recycling bins of America are clogged by millions of unread newspapers.

However, once in a blue moon old media's savants think they've gotten ahead of the hype machine, and when that happens nothing is going to hold them back; certainly not extremely spotty evidence of any wave of enthusiasm actually building — apart from officially generated hype.

What makes editors think they know ahead of time when a hype wave is coming? Usually because one washed ashore on the same spot before. So when another Michael Jackson story is coming along, it just had to be as big as the last one, right? Or half as big?

The LA Times for instance, (disclosure: my former employer) put that formula to good use, cover the This premiere like a Presidential Inauguration, complete with daily Countdown items, a live blog stream from the premiere, and reporters standing by at the multiplex as fans exited the first shows.

The NY Times offered similar near-blanket coverage.

(Showing how the tables have turned, USA Today's volume of coverage was in fact, fairly measured.)

Nowhere in these reports does one find any moment of skepticism, any hint of awareness that the wave of Jackson mourning might just have crested. Other than reporting the early ticket sales numbers, in fact and talking with hard core fans, one can't find any evidence that any major paper even attempted to do any real world pulse taking on the excitement level.

Which leaves us to ask, when a newspaper tells us that a frenzy is building, on what are the basing that? The word of the studios? Unconfirmed tracking numbers? Or are they just making it up from their own gut instincts? If it's the latter, then someone oughta tell them that after chasing away ten percent of their readers in a single year, maybe they ought to take a look in the mirror and ask themselves if they are really the people whose opinion about public tastes they ought to be listening to.

And now that the movie has opened to middling numbers,inevitably will follow the stories about why it failed to do as well as expected. But very few of those stories are likely to ask who bought and who created those expectations in the first place; it apparently wasn't the public paying for that particular bill of goods.