How far have the networks been willing to go to secure unique offstage footage of Michael Jackson for ratings-grabbing primetime specials? Three weeks after CBS acknowledged a quid-pro-quo in its agreement to air a special promoting Jackson's new album in return for the singer's allowing Ed Bradley to interview him for ''60 Minutes,'' the New York Times reports that NBC offered last February to shelve an unflattering exposé on ''Dateline'' if Jackson would sell the network some home video footage that he was shopping around to competitors. The offer was spelled out in an e-mail sent by an NBC exec to the Jackson camp, which forwarded the message to the Times. The message read, in part, ''Unlike with other networks, the acquisition of the rights to this special on NBC will have the added benefit of pre-empting NBC's planned broadcast of the one-hour 'Dateline' scheduled for Feb. 17.''
Jackson ultimately sold Fox the footage, which had been meant to rebut ABC's Martin Bashir-produced documentary ''Living With Michael Jackson,'' and NBC aired the ''Dateline'' episode, which was called ''Michael Jackson Unmasked,'' as an expanded two-hour special that focused on the surgical history behind the singer's morphing face. Still, even if Jackson had accepted NBC's bid, which included an offer of $5 million for exclusive rights to the footage, the network would not have suppressed the offending news program, ''Dateline'' executive producer David Corvo says now. ''We would not have agreed [to cancel the episode],'' Corvo told the Times.
Part of the footage NBC wanted to buy included scenes of Jackson with the cancer-afflicted boy who is now his accuser in the child-molestation charges to which the singer pleaded not guilty last week. The boy is now very ill, says William Dickerman, the boy's family's former lawyer, who tells the Associated Press he is still in close contact with the boy. ''They're in hiding...They're very private people,'' Dickerman said. He says the 14-year-old has had a kidney, his spleen, and an adrenal gland removed, that the family is paying little attention to the criminal case against Jackson, and that the family will not seek money from Jackson.