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Michael Jackson memorial drew 31.1 million on TV, millions more online

July 8, 2009 |  6:04 pm

Just as Michael Jackson set records during his lifetime, so he continues after death. Tuesday’s memorial service was one of the most-watched and most-discussed live news events in recent history, with some analysts even calling it a milestone for media integration as fans gathered around TV sets, computers and smartphones and traded information on Facebook and other social-media services.

An average of 31.1 million TV viewers watched the memorial service, according to the Nielsen Company. The ceremony, which featured performances and tributes from Stevie Wonder, Brooke Shields and other celebrities, was carried live from approximately 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on 19 networks, including the major broadcast and cable-news outlets.

While nothing close to the 100 million or so that annually tune in to the Super Bowl, these figures make Jackson’s one of the most-watched live televised farewells for any major public figure in recent times. The 1997 funeral for Princess Diana, which started airing before 6 a.m. in much of the U.S., drew a slightly higher total (33.2 million). Former President Ronald Reagan’s 2004 burial, which aired during prime time, was seen by 35.1 million, yet his funeral earlier that day was watched by a more modest 20.8 million.

In Jackson’s case, however, the TV numbers reveal only part of the picture. The pop star’s memorial spiked huge waves of online traffic as many viewers turned to their computers to watch the ceremony. set a new record Tuesday for total online video streams (19 million), while the results for CNN (10.5 million) and Fox News (3.4 million) were exceeded only on Inauguration Day last January. At its peak, logged 781,000 concurrent live streams; peaked during the memorial with 677,000.

Nielsen said that Jackson’s death and its aftermath had drawn the most online buzz in Internet history. The reports of his death June 25 accounted for 8% of all online conversation, breaking daily records, the company said. On Twitter, Jackson-related search terms, even misspelled ones (“Micheal Jackson”), dominated the top trends Tuesday.

“While events like the Jackson memorial or the Obama inauguration are unique, the way consumers are multitasking between media is quickly becoming the norm,” Charles Buchwalter, a senior vice president at Nielsen Online, said in a company report. “Even as recently as five years ago, the only choice for community was to gather around the TV screen with co-workers or friends for major events. Now there are three screens to choose from and, as our research shows, online activity actually reinforces TV viewing.”

Because of Jackson's international celebrity, the memorial scored well overseas too. In Britain, more than 6.5 million viewers tuned in; the memorial was live on BBC2, the independent commercial channel 5 and Sky, according to a BBC report. The ceremony was shown in specially cleared prime time slots on BBC2 and Channel 5. The memorial also aired in Germany, France, Brazil and many other countries.

-- Scott Collins

 Janet Stobart contributed to this report.