Opinion » Pique'n Yer Interest

How O.J. Simpson transformed the way we watch TV



I'm not ashamed to admit I've been consumed by all things O.J. Simpson-related since an early October day in 1995, when the principal of my elementary school took to the PA system to utter two simple, yet mystifying words: "Not guilty."

While the adults in my life had mostly shielded my delicate nine-year-old psyche from the grisly details of the watershed case, my curiosity was piqued (It certainly didn't help that every time I asked my Grade 4 teacher for the meaning of my principal's cryptic announcement, she would simply dismiss me by saying, "Don't worry, that's adult stuff").

What I didn't realize until much later was to what degree the rest of the continent had become captivated by every twist and turn of the world's first TV trial and resulting media circus. From the moment, almost 20 years ago to the day, that the Hall of Fame football star hopped in the back seat of Al Cowlings's white Ford Bronco and into the living rooms of 95 million people, the O.J. Simpson saga was essential viewing, and TV networks were more than happy to feed a hunger society wasn't yet aware it had.

For as much is made of the landmark case's lasting impacts on the U.S. legal system, and, perhaps more importantly, how it served to illuminate the gaping chasm between white and black America that persists to this day, it was the media landscape that underwent the most radical and immediate of transformations.

It's easy to forget just how different television was prior to the brutal double murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman on the night of June 12, 1994. The airwaves were mainly populated with scripted entertainment, and the closest thing to reality TV you could find was on CNN, then only 14 years old. Ted Turner's cable giant, along with upstart niche network CourtTV, made the bold decision to dedicate the bulk of their resources and airtime to covering every detail of the case — no matter how minute. Nowadays, breathlessly reporting such a high-profile event ad nauseam would be a no-brainer (Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, anyone?), but at the time there were a lot of questions around society's appetite for such steadfast coverage of a single topic.

The 16-month trial would not only set the stage for our current, over-saturated 24-hour news cycle, but effectively planted the seeds that would eventually blossom into another, (arguably) more trivial pastime: celebrity gossip.

"What I realized is, this is entertainment," said Gerald Uelmen, one of Simpson's defence attorneys, in a recent interview with Washington Post reporter Kent Babb. "This is not news."

However you characterize the Simpson trial, it's hard to question the role it played in fuelling our incessant obsession with the trivialities of the rich and famous. It was also, for better or worse, the case that launched a thousand careers, be they of the talking head variety, like current Fox News host Greta Van Susteren, or the gossip monger, like TMZ founder Harvey Levin, who caught his big break working the Simpson beat for an L.A. news station.

Then you had the trial's outlying figures, like "allegedly" racist cop Mark Fuhrman, and everyone's favourite freeloader, Kato Kaelin, who both managed to capture the public's collective conscious and provide ample fodder for many a late-night comedian. (Sidenote: I would be failing in my duty as a reporter if I didn't tell you that Kaelin now has his own line of chips called Kato's Potatoes. Love that guy.)

There was also the laundry list of legal wonks who became household names throughout the court proceedings: Judge Lance Ito; head prosecutor Marcia Clark; legendary Harvard law professor and Simpson attorney Alan Dershowitz; as well as loquacious defence lawyer Johnnie Cochran, to name a few. These figures were the forebears to the many fictionalized litigators and brooding detectives who've graced the small screen over the years, turning crime TV from niche viewing to the moneymaking behemoth it is today.

And let's not forget another one of Cochran's Dream Team members, the late Robert Kardashian, often criticized for his close ties to Simpson and role in the investigation, but who is guilty of what may be an even greater crime: fathering a cadre of Kardashian daughters who would go on to rule over a vast reality TV empire.

So the next time you feel inundated by the endless onslaught of round-the-clock news coverage, or grow tired of yet another CSI: Miami marathon, or curse yourself for clicking on the latest scandalized Justin Bieber headline, remember that you have the O.J. Simpson case to thank.

"Fifty years ago, what you would've turned away from as outrageous, you turn to as kind of normal and interesting," New York University media professor Mark Crispin Miller told Babb.

"And then you can't do without it."

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