O.J. TV: ‘The Trial of the Century’ and then some

NEW YORK (AP) — O.J. TV was a national pastime.

The O.J. Simpson Show — with its centerpiece a former football great on trial for double homicide — commandeered the media, especially television, along with a spellbound audience for nearly 16 months.

It began as little more than a juicy crime story: the ex-wife of a celebrity and a male acquaintance slain outside her home on June 12, 1994.

Then things took a shocking turn: Simpson, initially seen as the grieving former husband, became the accused.

But O.J. TV erupted in full force late in the afternoon of June 17, with Simpson (charged with the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman) the focus of a slow-speed police chase in his white Ford Bronco, apparently considering suicide en route.

More than 90 million Americans watched, thunderstruck, as TV helicopters tracked this beyond-bizarre motorcade along the freeways of Los Angeles, then, after some 90 minutes, witnessed Simpson surrender in the driveway of his Brentwood home.

“You didn’t dare turn away,” says Greta Van Susteren, now a Fox News Channel host, who became a legal analyst for CNN’s trial coverage. “Everybody was watching it, live, wondering if O.J. was going to blow his brains out. That’s when the hook was set for everything that followed.”

What followed was labeled the Trial of the Century, with TV perfectly poised to give it the full treatment, serving as its primary dispatcher and enabler. Endowed with cameras in the courtroom, this was the first big TV trial. It was lurid, star-driven and racially charged, with elements of glitz, sex and domestic violence all wrapped in mystery and supercharged with who-will-win suspense.

And it had the perfect headliner.

“Here was a man who had transcended sports and even race, a guy who had achieved single-name status,” says Jack Ford, now CBS News Legal Analyst, who covered the trial for NBC News.

O.J. TV kept viewers hooked with jury selection that fall, through the trial’s start in January 1995, then through months of proceedings, carried gavel-to-gavel by numerous networks and recapped daily on numerous shows.

It swamped the airwaves, from network evening newscasts (where the Simpson case was the most heavily covered story of 1995) to magazine shows, talk shows and CNN, whose ratings increased eight-fold.

“At the beginning we knew it was a big story,” says Ford, “but I don’t think any of us anticipated how the public would be so invested in it.”

The case, with all its constituent parts, became second-nature to viewers: Nicole’s front walkway on Bundy Drive and O.J.’s towering hedge on Rockingham Avenue. Ron Goldman’s father’s upturned mustache. O.J. houseguest Kato Kaelin’s flowing locks. Judge Lance Ito on the bench pecking at his laptop. Robert Kardashian (the father of future TV dominatrices Kim, Khloe and Kourtney) as O.J. lawyer and hanger-on. And so many more, including O.J., of course: somber, stone-faced, always leading-man handsome.

The jury was unseen, out of camera range, but it, like the rest of Simpsonalia, was scrutinized, analyzed and argued about. And not just by the scores of on-air commentators. The Simpson case was Topic A among the watching hordes, and television welcomed their opinions. Thus was O.J. TV a forerunner of today’s interactive media.

Geraldo Rivera’s nightly CNBC talk show, all-consumed with the Simpson case, invited viewer call-ins. E! solicited viewers’ faxes, one of which, shown on camera, advised prosecutor Marcia Clark to “take a pill and chill, or O.J. will walk.”

Then on Oct. 3, 1995, the jury’s shocking verdict was pronounced. Identical courtroom video was carried by ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and The WB broadcast networks, and by cable channels CNBC, CNN, Court TV, E! Entertainment, ESPN and Headline News, with 91 percent of all TVs in use tuned to this bombshell.

O.J. TV came to an end with the audience deeply divided on his guilt. But there was unity on something else: Viewers wanted more and since then, have joined the media in hopefully framing each new trial (Timothy McVeigh, Scott Petersen, Casey Anthony, Oscar Pistorius) as the Trial of the Century.

Yet none has been. As tawdry, tragic melodrama, nothing has come close to O.J. TV, the first and only of its kind.

“It was a freak event in television,” says Van Susteren.

Other news stories have seized society and rattled the culture. News will never lose its capacity to startle, grip and horrify its audience en masse. But such seismic TV stories as 9/11 and Katrina didn’t unfold in a courtroom.

With a bland, cramped LA courtroom its main stage, O.J. TV boasted characters, theatrics and novelty ensuring its reign as the Trial for the Ages. To expect it to be equaled by a future trial is to imagine that, someday, four young Liverpool lads could spark another round of Beatlemania.