This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of TVWorthWatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross.

As FRESH AIR's TV critic, I'd like to open today's show by saying a few words about Michael Jackson, who died yesterday of cardiac arrest at the age of 50. For the 24-hour cable-news networks, which also dealt with the death of "Charlie's Angels" star Farrah Fawcett the same day, it was a case of major-media overload, but the Michael Jackson story trumped all others, and fittingly the best tribute came from MTV.

Michael Jackson, as the young front man of the Jackson 5, was a star at an incredibly young age, racking up an amazing string of number-one hits in the early 1970s. His group's appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show," while not as significant in terms of breaking down racial barriers as some of the acts Sullivan showcased in the '50s and '60s, were memorable. So was the reaction of the Sullivan show audience.

(Soundbite of television program, "The Ed Sullivan Show")

Mr. ED SULLIVAN (TV Host): Gary, Indiana, here's the youthful Jackson 5.

(Soundbite of song, "I Want You Back")

Mr. MICHAEL JACKSON (Singer): (Singing) When I had you to myself, I didn't want you around. Those pretty faces always made you stand out in a crowd. But someone went and picked you from the bunch, one glance was all it took. Now it's much too late for me to take second look.

Oh baby give me one more chance, to show you that I love you. Won't you please send me back in your heart? Oh darlin', I was blind…

BIANCULLI: But in television, as in the recording industry, Michael Jackson made his biggest impact and his most significant contributions once he went solo.

The year was 1983. MTV had launched two years earlier, and it's difficult to remember or imagine how different a network it was back then. Not only did it play nothing but music videos 24 hours a day, but it played music videos only by white artists.

The performer who broke unofficial black list, or white list, was Michael Jackson with a video and song too catchy too ignore. He danced lighting up squares on a floor with every step, and MTV and a superstar were reborn. The song was "Billie Jean."

(Soundbite of song, "Billie Jean")

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) She was more like a beauty queen on a movie screen. I said don't mind, but what do you mean, I am the one, who will dance on the floor in the round…

BIANCULLI: On MTV, "Billie Jean" was the first blow of a two-pronged attack. "Beat It," which borrowed its imagery from a gang street fight in "West Side Story," became another number-one hit for Michael Jackson two months later. In that same month, March 1983, Jackson appeared on a live NBC entertainment special honoring the 25th anniversary of Motown Records, the label on which the Jackson 5 had recorded.

Michael Jackson reunited with his brothers and sang that night, but he also made a solo appearance that remains one of the most electrifying star turns in TV history. He performed "Billie Jean," introducing a new dance move he had concocted for the occasion, a backwards, gliding step he called the Moonwalk. Viewers went crazy, critics raved, and even Fred Astaire phoned Jackson the next day to offer his praise. You are incredible, Astaire told him. You are a hell of a mover.

Not even Madonna, who became a pop star later that year because of a string of sexy videos, could unseat Michael Jackson as MTV's biggest, most influential artist. "Thriller," the album from which he drew an unprecedented number of hits, sold an absurd number of copies. By the time Michael Jackson bestowed upon himself the title The King of Pop, there was no denying it.

Throughout the '80s, he used his clout and his talent to make one ornate music video after another, strengthening MTV's appeal as well as his own. Say the titles of Jackson's hits, and you're likely to remember the images as quickly as the music: "Bad," "The Way You Make Me Feel," "Dirty Diana," Black or White."

But if Michael Jackson's biggest contribution to live TV was his "Billie Jean" Moonwalk, his greatest contribution to all TV history was his 1984 music video "Thriller." Directed by John Landis of "National Lampoon's Animal House," it was the longest, single-song music video ever made, a record I believe it still holds.

It had a storyline, which made it a mini-movie, and a well-rehearsed, inventively presented dance sequence featuring Michael Jackson and other dancers as a group of choreographed zombies that has become positively iconic, and who can forget Michael's confession to his girl at the start of "Thriller," just before he transforms.

(Soundbite of music video, "Thriller")

Mr. JACKSON: I'm not like other guys.

Ms. OLA RAY (Actress): (as Michael's Girl) Of course not. That's why I love you.

Mr. JACKSON: No, I mean I'm different.

Ms. RAY: (as Michael's Girl) What are you talking about?

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RAY: (as Michael's Girl) Are you all right?

Mr. JACKSON: Go away.

(Soundbite of scream)

BIANCULLI: More recently, Michael Jackson's TV history has been more tabloid coverage than music appreciation: a baby on a balcony, a creepy primetime interview, lawsuits involving underage boys and so on. But now with his death, all those images, all those stories, are folded together.

Yesterday and today, while most networks covering Jackson's death were using his music videos only as a visual backdrop while interviewing everyone they could reach, MTV did something different. It checked with other celebrities, too, but MTV spent most of its time just playing Michael Jackson's massive library of music videos and live performances.

On CNN, MSNBC and elsewhere, you could hear about what made Michael Jackson such a pop-culture icon, but on MTV, you could witness it all over again.

(Soundbite of song, "ABC")

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) A buh-buh buh buh-buh

The JACKSON 5 (Music Group): (Singing) A buh-buh buh buh-buh

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) You went to school to learn, girl, things you never, never knew before…

Mr. JERMAINE JACKSON: (Singing) Like I before E except after C…

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) Or why two plus two makes four. Now, now, now, I'm gonna teach you…

The JACKSON 5: (Singing) Teach you, teach you

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) All about love, dear…

The JACKSON 5: (Singing) All about love.

Mr. JERMAINE JACKSON: (Singing) Sit yourself down, take a seat. All you gotta do is repeat after me.

The JACKSON 5: (Singing) ABC.

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) Easy as…

The JACKSON 5: (Singing) 123

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) Or simple as…

The JACKSON 5: (Singing) Do re mi.

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) ABC, 123, baby, you and me girl.

The JACKSON 5: (Singing) ABC.

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) Easy as…

The JACKSON 5: (Singing) 123.

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) Or simple as…

The JACKSON 5: (Singing) Do re mi.

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) ABC, 123, baby, you and me, girl.

BIANCULLI: Coming up, actor Gabriel Byrne. This is FRESH AIR.

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