When 95 million people tuned in to the ex-football star's car chase, the media industry cashed in

By Albert Kim
Updated July 08, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Only two hours after the bodies of O.J. Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Lyle Goldman were discovered lying in a sea of blood in a posh Los Angeles enclave, Tom Colbert was on the phone to Bill Birnes, an L.A. book packager. Colbert, the president of Industry R&D, a research company that seeks out hot stories before they get hot, told Birnes, ”There’s a really big story breaking in Brentwood. It hasn’t even hit the wires yet.” By six the next morning, Birnes was talking to New York publishers about doing an instant book on the grisly murders.

Is the Simpson case too tragic to commercialize a la Tonya and Nancy? Not when you consider that 95 million people watched spellbound as Simpson made his last dash across the L.A. freeways on June 17. That number is just too hard to ignore for the loose conglomeration of agents, movie producers, and book publishers who turn today’s tragedies into tomorrow’s entertainment.

”The true-life drama in this is so sensational,” says Howard Braunstein, who produced NBC’s Amy Fisher movie. ”How much more can be done?” Plenty. The Simpson story has already spawned its own cottage industry. Three instant books are being written, two TV movies are in development, and countless hours of network time have already been devoted to what’s turning out to be one of the most sensational crimes of the century. The tally so far:

The news media: No network news organization pursued the story with greater abandon than ABC. When Simpson became a fugitive that June afternoon, ABC News president Roone Arledge called together the producers of the network’s news shows and asked for an unprecedented cooperative approach. ”Let’s make this an all-magazine effort,” he said. Arledge then sent producers from Day One, Turning Point, PrimeTime Live, Nightline, and 20/20 out to the scene of the crime.

Although ABC’s coverage began with some less-than-congenial teamwork during the live car chase — at one point anchor Peter Jennings told Barbara Walters to be ”quiet for a second” — the network’s cooperative coverage scored some of the highest ratings ever for its newsmagazines, all of which won their time slots during the week of June 19-25. ”I’ve never seen that kind of coordinated push before,” says Betsy West, Turning Point‘s producer. ”I imagine it will be a model for the future.”

Future ratings successes will depend on whether the network can continue to outmaneuver NBC and CBS for the big exclusives. Who are the most wanted? After Simpson’s girlfriend Paula Barbieri (whom ABC’s Diane Sawyer landed for PrimeTime Live), the list includes Simpson’s mother; his first wife, Marquerite; and best friend Al Cowlings.

For the tabloid shows, the Simpson murder case couldn’t have happened at a worse time. The staffs of both Hard Copy and Inside Edition were on hiatus. But Hard Copy, which had to get by with skeletal crews, did air an exclusive interview with Jill Shively, a grand-jury witness who claims to have seen an enraged Simpson driving near his ex-wife Nicole’s house around the time of the murders. After Shively accepted money for her story (reportedly $5,000), her attorney said prosecutors would not use her testimony because her credibility had been tainted.

The TV movies: Considering the recent onslaught of reality-based TV movies, a Simpson drama seems inevitable. But the networks appear ambivalent about dramatizing the crime. Simpson is close friends with executives at both ABC, where he worked for three years as a Monday Night Football analyst, and NBC, where he’s been a sports reporter since 1989. ”A Simpson movie is highly political,” says one veteran producer. ”He has very powerful friends. O.J. played golf with everybody in the business. He’s been to their homes and played with their children. He was in the ‘in’ crowd. You don’t kill your own.”

But one fact stands out: 95 million people. And when such an enormous figure is tossed around, all bets are off. ”We have never said we’re not interested in a movie,” says an ABC source. ”We’re keeping our options open. We’ll wait and see how the story develops.”