April 4, 2007

Anna Nicole Smith - Anatomy of a Feeding Frenzy

Trajectory of a Melodrama

After the first few frantic days, the Smith drama—and the accompanying media attention—took something of a roller coaster ride. After filling nearly one-third of the overall newshole on February 8 and 9, it accounted for only 6% of the coverage in the week of February 11-16. In no media sector other than cable—where 20% of the airtime was still consumed by Smith—did coverage even reach 5% of the newshole that week.

Still, the outlets most fascinated continued to pay close attention. Fully one-third of Fox News’s airtime was given over to Smith. And she accounted for 18% of the content on “The Early Show.”

It was during this second week that the battle for control of Smith’s remains heated up between her mother Virgie Arthur and Howard K. Stern, Smith’s lawyer, companion and professed father of her infant daughter, Dannielynn. But perhaps the most newsworthy development was something that would not really capture the media’s imagination until the following week.

On February 14, six days after Smith’s death, a Broward County judge deferred a ruling about where Smith would be buried. In a flamboyant fashion that would soon become familiar to many Americans, Judge Larry Seidlin declared of Smith’s remains: “The body belongs to me now.”

Anna Nicole Smith Coverage over Time

All Media, Cable News and Network Morning News

PEJ

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The week of February 18-23 was marked by a mini-media tour from Smith’s friend Jackie Hatten, who pointed the finger of blame at Stern for the tragedy that befell the model/reality star. But the already strange proceedings were dominated by televised coverage of the “media circus” inside Judge Seidlin’s Florida courtroom. The focal point was Seidlin, an eccentric man given to talking about himself, lecturing the parties, and delivering messages like “money is the root of all evil.”

The crowning moment came as Seidlin audibly sobbed while awarding custody of Smith’s body to the guardian for her infant daughter on February 22. Suspicions about his behavior were only exacerbated by reports that he was hoping to become the male version of “Judge Judy” with his own TV show.

In this February 18-23 period, attention to the Smith story spiked again, accounting for 10% of the overall news coverage. By comparison, problems with medical care at Walter Reed, a story ignited by a February 18-19 Washington Post series, received less than half as much coverage (3%). That was true even in a week when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited the Army hospital and promised that people would be “held responsible.”

More than a quarter of cable’s airtime (26%) from February 18-23 was devoted to the case, with Fox News (41%) and MSNBC (31%) following the events most closely. Conversely, CNN’s coverage that week dropped down to 8%. The morning shows ratcheted their coverage back up to 19% and this time it was” Today” which spent 26% of its time on the story, leading the way.

The final week of the Smith mega-story saw some late legal skirmishing by Smith’s mother to try and get her body moved to Texas. But after a memorial service, she was finally buried in the Bahamas, next to her son, on March 2.

Overall coverage from February 25-March 2, at 4%, was the lowest of any week since Smith’s death. It was the eighth biggest story of the week, and in no sector did it even reach 10% of the newshole. Even in cable, a string of deadly tornados supplanted the Smith case as the number one story that week.

Still, the burial and continuing court battles did consume 9% of the cable newshole that week, including 16% on Fox News, 10% on MSNBC, and only 1% on CNN.

The numbers were eerily similar for the morning shows, where Smith also accounted for 9% of the coverage. Again “The Early Show” was most interested at (16%) with “Today” second (10%) and “Good Morning America” a very distant third at 2%.

The basic coverage patterns, it seems, held up throughout the 23 days of this death-to- burial saga.