The cable news networks that have lived off the Anna Nicole Smith saga in the weeks since her death offered a muted farewell Friday.
Cameras followed the motorcade to a Bahamian church and focused from a distance on mourners as they came and left. Only cameras from the syndicated newsmagazine “Entertainment Tonight” were allowed into the funeral.
The coverage was sporadic throughout the day, overshadowed by the aftermath of tornadoes in the Southeast and the bus accident involving college baseball players in Georgia. Unlike the past few weeks, little old footage of Smith laughing and shaking for cameras was used.
On Feb. 8, when she died, and Feb. 9, the story took up half of the time on CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
It continued to dominate the news through the fight over paternity of Smith’s baby and over where she would be buried. Friday’s funeral was even delayed because of a last-ditch effort by Smith’s mother to prevent her burial in the Bahamas.
“This certainly has a lot of the element of traditional tabloid fascination to it,” said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “There’s sex, there’s paternity, there’s celebrity, there’s beauty, there’s legal hassles.”
All the video footage of Smith “vamping and posing seemed to help the story,” he said. Network correspondents also spent a lot of time talking about why they spent a lot of time on the story.
The news networks were caught in a classic bind: the story improved ratings, yet also drew complaints from viewers disgusted by the obsession.
CNN made a conscious decision to back off the story after those first few days, said Jon Klein, CNN U.S. president. It offered only cursory references to Friday’s funeral.
“There’s a heightened awareness due to the war that there’s a lot going on in the world that is very important,” Klein said. “The audience is very busy. They don’t want to waste their time and they don’t like it when we do.”
The story was a gold mine for the syndicated newsmagazines. Both “Inside Edition” and “Entertainment Tonight,” for example, drew their biggest audiences since February 2004 following Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl, according to Nielsen Media Research.
E! Entertainment Channel premiered a new special, “Anna Nicole: Rest in Peace,” after lengthy funeral coverage on Friday.
Ferocious competition among networksThe story prompted ferocious competition. When Ron Mott of MSNBC pointed out to viewers that “Entertainment Tonight” was allowed into the funeral, he said, “it remains to be seen if there is money involved, or how much money is involved.”
Lisa Summers Haas, a spokeswoman for the newsmagazine, refused to address questions about how “Entertainment Tonight” got the special access. She said it was “approved by all of the parties.”
Smith’s companion Howard K. Stern said that “Entertainment Tonight” paid for his private plane flight to the Bahamas — filming him weeping onboard — but denied receiving any money. Before she died, Smith reportedly had a working arrangement with “Entertainment Tonight” to provide material.
MSNBC, which flashed messages like “Slash from Guns ’n’ Roses attended Bahamas Funeral” on-screen during its coverage, had some inside help, too: correspondent Rita Cosby was invited to attend the funeral service, otherwise closed to the media.
Cosby hurried out after the funeral to offer several reports on what was said during the funeral service.
“Several sides extended the invitation to me and my producer,” Cosby said. “I was honored that they respected my coverage so much that they sought me out to include me in this very special service.”