The way we watched O.J.
With the end of the Simpson trial comes the end of great, must-see TV
Imagine if Judge Lance Ito hadn’t let TV cameras in the courtroom? The biggest question on the minds of daytime TV viewers last week could have been whether The Young and the Restless‘ Nikki and Victor should reconcile.
But with its unprecedented TV coverage, the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial turned the usually staid pursuit of justice into the most riveting, sensational, and unpredictable show ever to hit the tube. No matter how you feel about the verdict, one piece of evidence is irrefutable: Over its nearly nine-month run, the courtroom circus of the century has transformed entertainment. Here’s how:
Daytime declined: Steamy network soaps and sordid syndicated talk shows just couldn’t compete with the courtroom drama being broadcast live. With their gavel-to-gavel telecasts, CNN, E! Entertainment Television, and Court TV lured throngs of viewers into the fold of cable TV. Now that the trial is over, viewers may not necessarily go back. ”A lot of people used to plan their schedule around their soaps,” says Paul Schulman, president of the Paul Schulman Company, a media buying firm. ”Now people have learned they can live without them.”
Cable hit pay dirt: As the trial unfolded, CNN’s viewership increased nearly fivefold, while E!’s daytime ratings quadrupled. Court TV viewership swelled significantly too, though the company declines to say how much.
Cable’s biggest benefactor might be Geraldo Rivera’s once-struggling CNBC entry, Rivera Live. The show began airing in February, and ”it wasn’t really doing much,” says Andy Friendly, outgoing vice president of prime time programming for CNBC. When Rivera began tackling the trial, ratings jumped from 0.2 percent to a high of 2.4 percent in the last week.
But how many of these new viewers will continue to hang around? ”We could fool ourselves thinking we’ll keep a third or half,” says Bob Furnad, executive VP of CNN. ”But we’ll be pleased if we do a little better than prior to O.J.”
To that modest end, CNN has already added a new daily legal discussion show, Burden of Proof, hosted by its commentating team of Greta Van Susteren and Roger Cossack. E! will likely retain its on-air O.J. anchor, Kathleen Sullivan. On the other hand, Court TV is trying to distance itself from O.J. ”There are other trials,” says Court TV founder and CEO Steve Brill, including ”a war crimes case and a tainted blood transfusion case in New York.”
Jay Leno found a shtick: Before the trial, David Letterman was the king of late-night talk shows and Leno a struggling court jester. Although both initially steered clear of O.J. jokes, Leno was soon poking fun nightly at everyone from the defendant to the judge. His Dancing Itos were among the regular O.J. gags that galvanized the show and, aided by a drop in CBS’ viewership, helped Leno surpass Letterman for the first time in the ratings. Nightline also benefitted from O.J., coming in first during all the trial’s high points.
O.J. books outnumbered cat tomes: Nearly 40 O.J. books hit shelves, representing everyone’s point of view. ”There’s never been anything even remotely close to this,” says Maureen O’Brien, news editor of Publishers Weekly. ”We’re surprised by how large and long-standing the public’s consumption for this is.” And they’re banking it doesn’t end with the verdict. More books are on the way, including a second installment by Faye Resnick (Shattered, about life after the trial, due out in January). For afficionados, there’s also Dominick Dunne’s deconstruction and an equally weighty volume from Blind Faith author Joe McGinniss. Perhaps the biggest bonanza was scored by Beverly Hills-based Dove Books. The company, which previously produced only books on tape, launched it’s publishing division with Resnick’s best-seller, followed by three other O.J. books. Perry Mason’s now passé: Ultimately, cable might retain some of its new audience, and TV will certainly be invaded by a new crop of talking heads (see below). But the trial’s most long-lasting legacy could well be the way it has forced TV producers to reinvent courtroom dramas. Deborah Joy LeVine, a onetime lawyer and creator-executive producer of CBS’ Courthouse, recalls that writers on the show came up with a scene in which an expert witness recants his testimony after two days. It was later axed, she says, because after seeing the O.J. trial, in which a witness held solid for five days, no viewer would buy it.
On the upside, the trial probably means we’ll witness even more dramas about due process. You don’t have to be Johnnie Cochran to pick up on similarities between the Simpson proceedings and ABC’s Murder One. Interestingly, both ABC and the show’s exec producer Steven Bochco are playing down similarities between art and life, but even Bochco has to tell the whole truth. ”We’ve gone to school on [the O.J. and Menendez trials], he says. ”I love Court TV.” — Additional reporting by Sue Karlin, Irv Letofsky, Jennifer Pendleton, and Dan Snierson
The Usual Suspects
Although the verdict’s been heard, the jury is still out on what will become of the trial’s top TV sensations.
What’s next? Clark will continue to prosecute high-profile Hollywood cases — and if she doesn’t have a book deal yet, she will.
Shelf life: She may no longer be the kind of woman Esquire loves, but Clark’s likely to give ABC commentator Leslie Abramson, who now has her own show, a run for her money as a legal loose-lip.
JOHNNIE L. COCHRAN
What’s next? Cochran will defend rap artist Snoop Doggy Dogg against his murder charge. And, of course, the inevitable book deal is in the works.
Shelf life: An even bigger winner than O.J., Cochran becomes every famous defendant’s first phone call. Expect Fox do a movie about his life.
JUDGE LANCE ITO
What’s next? Ito is circumspect about rumors of a book deal worth millions.
Shelf life: Watch the real Ito dance across TV screens. It’ll be as if the trial never ended.
What’s next?: At press time, one juror had met with the press. That’ll probably change once the others speak to their financial planners.
Shelf life: How many jurors from other famous trials do you remember?
What’s Next? Since he may be hurting for cash, there’s talk of a follow-up to I Want To Tell You (I Want To Tell You More?), a pay-per-view deal, and a Simpson product line (stay away from shrink-proof gloves).
Shelf-life: Not likely Hertz will have him leaping luggage in airports again, but there are enough trash mongers around to keep him in limited-edition Bruno Magli. — Liza Schoenfein, with reporting by Kipp Cheng and Shirliey Fung