News of Michael Jackson’s death last month nearly shut down the Internets with interest and confusion as people went online to check and discuss the news. Today is the pop singer’s memorial service in Los Angeles and online news channels and video hubs are preparing for similar levels of traffic. 

Everyone  – from the BBC to USA Today and MySpace – is planning to live stream the service, which is today at 10:00 PST at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. If viewer interest comes anywhere near the level expected by these sites, the whole Internet might shut down. Alternately, it could illustrate the potential of online video left untouched by profit motives.

Jackson’s funeral service is expected to be an unprecedented draw online. The Times of London thinks it will be the “biggest online event ever.” And while a live event this large could be a windfall for advertising, putting brands next to such content would be a bit, well, unseemly.

Which is why the content is going to be live online anyhow. TMZ, CNN.com, E! Online, ABC News, Fox News, Hulu, MySpace, and CBS News will
all
be streaming the service starting at 1:00 EST. (Theoretically, you can also watch at the bottom of this post, as Hulu is giving an embed code to viewers.)

All the major networks
will also be airing the service on television. And those of you away
from a computer or television for more than five minutes today can also
find it on your cellphone!

Network television is hesistant to part with any footage that can be attached to advertising content because it is still far more profitable to silo content on television than to stream it on the web.

NBC Universal’s chief Jeff Zucker has repeatedly stated that his network will not be streaming profitable live content for the foreseeable future: “I wouldn’t want to
devalue the price of the Olympics or the Super Bowl or whatever it is.”

But live footage of a news event, or in this case a memorial service, is a more unwieldy topic for advertising. While it promises to be a star-studded event with a massive audience both at the site and around the world, even the most aggressive brands would hesitate to put their logo next to people trying to mourn.

“You don’t want to overpower an event like that with advertising,” says Forrester principle analyst David Card. “It wants to be tasteful and fairly lowkey. It does not feel like the BET Awards, which were able to harness the energy of the industry for the event in an entertaining and respectful way.”

The result is that networks have little to lose by putting the footage on the web.

Live footage is still a windfall for the networks — NBC brought in over $10 billion during the Olympics this summer. But many viewers won’t be able to watch the event live on television. Happening during the day when most people
at work, many regular television viewers interested in joining the conversation will take to their computer screens to watch. 

Political speeches serve a similar purpose — Obama’s first speech as president was an international event online that actually slowed web surfers’ usage of Google. But the death of a pop icon has the potential to overshadow even that online audience.

It remains to be seen if sites streaming the footage or services like Twitter will receive the bulk of the Jackson interest. But whether demand meets the expectations of networks and video hubs today or not, the viewing will prove a powerful testing ground for where interest in online video sits today.

Photo: Getty