Features

The O.J. decade

National | MEDIA: From the slow-speed chase to nonstop coverage, the O.J. Simpson murder trial was first in a long run of made-for-TV justice

Issue: "One nation under God," June 26, 2004

Martha-Michael-Kobe-Robert-Scott-Phil. Television news producers call it "the six-pack"-six celebrity trials now glittering simultaneously in living rooms nationwide. In the post-O.J. Simpson-trial universe, their coexistence may be the broadcast-news equivalent of stellar alignment.

Ten years ago last week, the infamous slow-motion white-Bronco police chase ended in the arrest of football great and cameo king O.J. Simpson for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole. But even as that day marked the end of Mr. Simpson's breezy Hollywood lifestyle, a new era in broadcast news began: the era of saturation coverage of celebrity trials.

For television news executives, the O.J. Simpson trial marked an epiphany: They no longer needed to cleave to the traditional cover-the-world-in-a-half-hour format when saturation coverage of a glitterati crime story was such a ratings goldmine. The trial pulled CNN out of a ratings slump and helped to launch both Fox News and MSNBC the following year. "Producers have been trying to fill the O.J. hole ever since," says Tim Graham, an analyst at the Media Research Center.

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There's no shortage of hole-filler this summer. L.A. Lakers star Kobe Bryant was an icon of clean right up until July 18, 2003, when he was charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman at a Vail, Colo., hotel. Premiere NBA shooting guard plus possible sex crime equals saturation coverage that has continued for nearly a year, with more on tap given the pre-trial hearing slated for June 21.

Next up: Martha Stewart. Although her obstruction-of-justice trial ended in March with four guilty verdicts, on June 10 she requested a new trial based on a federal grand jury's finding that prosecution witness Larry Stewart, a Secret Service lab analyst, lied repeatedly on the witness stand. If a Manhattan federal judge grants Ms. Stewart's request, viewers will be treated to a whole new round of windblown close-ups of the domestic diva exiting limos near the courthouse steps. (Failing that, Ms. Stewart's sentencing is set for July.)

Meanwhile, more celebrities are awaiting their turn in the spotlight: Michael Jackson (a Santa Barbara County Judge last week refused to lower the singer's $3 million bail, saying Mr. Jackson needed a "cognizable financial incentive" to continue showing up in court); Robert Blake (who is free on $1.5 million bail while awaiting a September trial for the murder of his wife Bonny Lee Bakley); and record industry idol-maker Phil Spector (awaiting trial on charges of murdering actress Lana Clarkson in his L.A. home).

Unlike the rich and famous crowding the docket this summer, Scott Peterson was a photogenic yet unknown fertilizer salesman until his pregnant wife, Laci, disappeared. The media loved the story; only the Iraq War garnered more airtime on the morning news shows last year. That made Mr. Peterson a full-fledged celebrity, with banks of television cameras staking out the Redwood City, Calif., courthouse where his murder trial is underway.

In a way, then, the circle has been closed: An industry created by celebrity trials is now creating celebrities of its own.

News executives argue that in airing, say, a two-hour peek inside Michael Jackson's ranch, they're merely responding to viewer demand. But, says Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA), "It's a response to public demand in the way that a kindergarten class requests ice cream for lunch instead of the basic food groups. Yes, it's what we want . . . but by serving us junk-food news, the news industry is creating an illusion of delivering information."

OpinionJournal.com columnist John Fund agrees. "These trials have the advantage of including the two things that many people care most about . . . sex and money. Basically, the public is paying for the spectacle. We have met the reason that there are more of these things, and it is us."

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