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The casting call is out there. Wanted: One Michael Jackson look-alike to portray the tarnished pop icon on a daily daytime series. It's a courtroom drama, in fact, with other actors playing lawyers, jurors, the judge. The script will be taken directly from Jackson's upcoming trial on child-molestation charges. It's the reality show that will write itself.

Only in America, as Don King likes to say. The news that U.S. cable channel E! Entertainment will produce next-day dramatic re-enactments of testimony in the Jackson trial surely woke up everyone at the annual TV-critics tour. The E! folks saved it until last for shock value and indeed the news upstaged everyone, even Wayne Newton, and he's Mr. Las Vegas.

News of the decision to turn the Jackson trial into a daily soap came at the end of a sluggish first day of presentations from cable broadcasters. The press sessions preceding the Jackson bombshell were from cable channels unavailable in Canada, perhaps mercifully.

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There was time filled by The Oxygen Network, ESPN, F/X, DIY (Do It Yourself) and some sort of video-game channel. On the plus side, Fabio showed up to hype Mr. Romance, a new reality series that purports to turn blue-collar sluggards into Harlequin book-cover models. "Is about romance," said Fabio, whose hair was perfect.

The final cable session was for the aforementioned Mr. Newton, who was there to promote The Entertainer, a glitzy new talent-search series on E!. The late-day session was to be followed immediately by a splashy E! party on the rooftop ballroom, with gambling tables and cocktails, all hosted, of course, by Mr. Newton, who made a big arrival in a shiny limo. Wayne Newton is one of those celebrities you have to see in person to fully appreciate.

Where to start? He's a large, waxy-looking fellow, with too-tanned tightened features that make him appear vaguely Asian. His sharply cleaved pompadour looks like it could split an atom. He didn't look real, actually.

Either way, Wayne Newton is Vegas royalty and was pampered thusly by the E! organizers, who even had an elevated throne-like chair on the dais for him.

Newton was doing rather well, talking about his old show-biz days, when his session was cut short by the unexpected re-introduction of E! programming president Ted Harbert, who had already met with critics earlier. He seemed fit to burst with some news.

Harbert, it should be mentioned, is a player. A handsome Hollywood hotshot with a fast-track résumé that includes running ABC for several years and, before that, working with Michael Jackson back in the eighties.

Harbert took over the mike from Newton and said matter-of-factly that E! had entered into a partnership with the British Sky Network. The production deal was to produce dramatic re-enactments of the Jackson trial that would run five days a week, with a weekend wrap-up show, starting immediately after jury selection concludes in mid to late February.

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The announcement prompted gasps from the assembled press, and more than a few bursts of laughter.

Critics were incredulous but Harbert pressed on. "I'm a person who believes strongly that what we need to bring to television is some taste, and so we're . . . ," he said, before being cut off by more laughter. "Wait a minute. Folks, hold on. I knew this was going to happen. We're going to have a good time here. We're doing this. . . . Let's talk about this. . . ."

The crowd's reaction did not dim Harbert's spiel, not for a minute. He calmly stated that the show would feature verbatim testimony and that the utmost discretion would be applied to broadcasting any potentially salacious details.

"I understand this needs to be treated deadly serious," said Harbert soberly. "Yes, he is a celebrity, who I spent a lot of time with when I was at ABC doing a lot of work over the years. This is a person I know. I haven't spoken to him in years and years and years but this is beyond the fact of his rather absurd level of celebrity right now."

Barring any delays, the Jackson trial will likely begin by March. With their combined reach, the E!-Sky Network daily broadcasts will be available in nearly 100 countries worldwide and potential for a half-billion viewers. So far there is no existing deal for a Canadian broadcaster, though that's likely to change.

But isn't there something just wrong here? The prickly critics pressed Harbert on the morality issues of dramatizing a child-abuse case on TV, but he was completely unapologetic and bluntly upfront about his network's intent. "You know, I'm not just putting this on as a public service, I'm putting it on to get ratings, right?"

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Even though the notion of turning the sordid trial details into a daily soap is horrendous, it was a bullet-proof performance by Harbert.

It was also interesting to watch Wayne Newton in the wings, impatiently waiting for his own party to begin, while the young buck worked the room. Wayne Newton was smiling -- I don't think it's an option any more -- but he didn't look too happy.

Sadly for him, Mr. Danke Schoen had been bumped to opening act. Clearly, E! used Newton's name to draw in the crowd of TV critics, which includes representatives from every major newspaper and media outlet in North America. Then, Harbert stole the show in order to put his Michael Jackson bombshell out there. Harbert knew the news would be on the Internet, and then on CNN, within hours. Harbert was the headliner on this day.

And a good headliner knows how to close a show. Somebody asked Harbert the perfectly reasonable question of whether he thought any competing network might dare to mount dramatic re-enactments of the Jackson trial.

Silky smooth, Harbert smiled, made quick eye contact with E! staff waiting to usher critics into the party next door, and said cheerily, "Now that we're doing it, I really doubt it. Cocktails!"

John Doyle returns on Feb. 16.

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jaryan@globeandmail.ca

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