It's O.J. Simpson's World; We're Just Living In It (Guest Column)

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O.J. Simpson during a pre-trial hearing in January 1995

With the former NFL star up for parole Thursday for his 2008 conviction for burglary (among other counts), a former CNN editor who covered the 1994-95 "Trial of the Century" reflects on how Simpson changed the TV landscape forever, earned millions for the cable network and made President Trump possible.

On June 17, 1994, O.J. Simpson and A.C. Cowlings changed America forever.

Don't believe me? Read on.

As CNN's evening assignment editor in the Los Angeles bureau, it was my job to coordinate local breaking news coverage that night. I was 25 years old and had just recently been promoted to the job. At first I didn't expect much because O.J.'s close friend, Robert Kardashian, had just read (what appeared to be) O.J.'s suicide note to a live national audience. All that was left, I thought, was to find the body.

Then, suddenly: a white Bronco appeared in a helicopter shot. It was KCBS, but every television monitor in the newsroom soon flashed the same images. For the next several hours, some of the most dramatic live television in U.S. history played out across the airwaves. The massive audience was riveted.

Those viewers stayed glued to their sets. For the next 15 months, until the O.J. Simpson trial concluded on Oct. 3, 1995, television ratings for the "trial of the century" remained stellar. The Simpson trial, with its intersecting themes of gender, race, sex and violence, proved irresistible to America's media audiences. Everyone jumped on the gravy train. Book publishers, talk show hosts, celebrity magazine editors, hangers-on and has-beens — the revenue poured in. Even Geraldo Rivera revived his flagging career by flogging new Simpson theories nightly on his cable TV show.

The billions — yes, billions — of dollars generated by public interest in the O.J. Simpson story is never-ending. Just look at last year's Academy-Award winning documentary. And Thursday's parole hearing in Nevada, which is being broadcast live to millions of viewers across numerous networks. But the Simpson trial's legacy isn't simply a story about media economics. It's much larger, encompassing contemporary American culture and politics.

In 2017, we're living in a world shaped by O.J.'s trial.  

It was estimated that CNN earned more than $200 million in net revenue in both 1994 and 1995, largely due to the Simpson trial. The value of the O.J. Simpson trial — which would later be considered the centerpiece of what Vanity Fair called "the tabloid decade" — stunned industry executives. Nobody had seen anything like it. Production costs remained remarkably low (the courtroom drama was transmitted via a shared pool feed) while ratings and advertising revenue soared. And it wasn't just CNN: Court TV, and the traditional broadcast networks, also shared in the riches.

Everyone recognized that television had been transformed. The parent company of ABC ordered news division president Roone Arledge to assemble a 24-hour cable news channel. The ABC executives weren't deterred by Microsoft and NBC having announced their own collaborative plans to launch a cable news channel at the same time. But ABC management canceled its channel when Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes came forward with perhaps the most audacious economic proposal in the history of American television. Rather than have cable distributors remit payment to their new channel, as was the previous custom, the founders of Fox News offered to reverse the relationship between cable networks and their cable distributors. Fox offered to pay cable distributors $10 per subscriber to launch their new channel. The idea was breathtaking; at the time, cable distributors paid CNN about 50 cents per subscriber, per month, to carry the CNN signal.

The amount astonished Arledge and his ABC News colleagues, who dropped their plans for a channel. They felt certain Murdoch was overpaying. But the old fox knew exactly what he was doing. In the short term, the Fox News plan frightened away almost all the competition (exceptions included the Microsoft/NBC collaboration, which survived, and a Christian Science Monitor Channel, which did not). In the long term, the success of Fox News eventually imprisoned the cable companies that a few years earlier were laughing their way to the bank. Once launched, Fox News leveraged glitzy graphics, gorgeous women and hyper-patriotic "news" into a ratings powerhouse. Its huge audience of elderly shut-ins — feeling underserved by soap operas and unappreciated by the liberal media — strengthened Fox News in all ensuing payment negotiations with cable carriers. The real Fox News revolution wasn't political, it was contractual. As D.M. Levine pointed out in Adweek, "the network captured cable ... and never let go."

The thread from that moment to 2017 is clear. The O.J. Simpson trial proved that very cheap programming can deliver unprecedented returns, so the television industry — both cable and broadcast — desperately kept searching for its next gold mine. The explosion of reality television, occurring in the wake of the Simpson trial, reaffirmed television riches could be generated by turning on cameras and dispatching with actors, writers, costly sets and other production effects. Like the Simpson trial, reality television flooded our culture with exploitative drama characterized by stereotypes and celebrity worship. And I'm not even mentioning the direct link — embodied by the Kardashian clan — between the Simpson trial and the profusion of reality television.  

Reality television, in the form of NBC's The Apprentice, made possible the realization of Donald Trump's political ambitions. Though Trump flirted with politics long before his program delighted millions, the character he played made everything that followed possible.

It's difficult to imagine a counter-factual, but without the expansion of cable news — and subsequent rise in sensationalism leading to the profusion of  reality television — I think it's safe to say our politics would look very, very different today.

And it's all because of O.J.

July 21, 12:10 pm Updated to note that the 1995 trial concluded on October 3. 

Michael J. Socolow is the author of Six Minutes in Berlin: Broadcast Spectacle and Rowing Gold at the Nazi Olympics. He teaches at the University of Maine.

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