FOR 19 HOURS, WE WAITED ANXIOUSLY for the verdict, gorging on an empty TV diet of “expert” conjecture and speculation. Was the request for limo-driver Allan Park’s testimony an indication of conviction? Most pundits thought yes. Meanwhile the networks girded for the climax to the Trial of the Century, a TV mega-event on a level with the first lunar landing and JFK’s funeral. Network number-crunchers estimate that more than 150 million Americans—almost 60 percent of the population—saw the verdict, which was carried live on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CNN, Headline News, Court TV, CNBC, E!, MTV, Univision, ESPN and ESPN2.
The quick verdict didn’t just affect news divisions. Oprah had to scrap her scheduled Tuesday show pondering O.J.’s fate and instead invited in an audience to watch and react to the verdict with her in the studio for same-day broadcast. The networks lined up the usual array of attorneys and legal analysts, but they were all competing for bigger game: exclusive access to principals in the case. Barbara Walters bagged Kato Kaelin and, later that night, Robert Shapiro for ABC. The interview with Shapiro provided the only fireworks in an oddly muted day. Professing to be “deeply offended” by the defense’s reliance on race tactics, the lawyer declared he would never again even speak to his former close friend F. Lee Bailey (see story, page 54). NBC had defense lawyer Barry Scheck in their corner. The DNA bulldog seemed genuinely moved watching prosecutor Christopher Darden break down at a posttrial press conference. MTV countered with an intriguing tandem of commentators: Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who offered subdued and thoughtful reflections on the verdict. Johnnie Cochran executed a quick victory lap, appearing on the CBS Evening News, a special late edition of Dateline and, the following day, on Oprah and Larry King Live. Of course, the most eagerly sought subjects were the ones least likely to assent: Judge Ito and O.J. himself. The elusive Simpson was, in the parlance of TV news, “the ultimate get.” Emissaries of the Juice have been shopping around a possible pay-per-view special; reportedly both HBO and King World passed on the proposal.
No one network stood head and shoulders above the crowd on O.J.’s Judgment Day, although CNN did the best job of setting the scene, with bomb-sniffing dogs nosing around the courthouse. ABC anchor Peter Jennings experienced a rare awkward moment. As O.J. was being transported to his Brentwood estate, Jennings petulantly asked, “Do we know that this white van that we’re looking at has some association with the O.J. Simpson case? Have we the vaguest idea where it’s going? There is a deafening silence in my ear.” He then surmised that the van was en route to the jail complex, which it had left just moments before. The on-air standouts were those people who provided the most reasoned and informed observations: the low-key, all-star trio of CNN anchor Jim Moret, NBC reporter Kelly O’Donnell and ABC legal analyst Peter Aranella.
Then, finally, this trial which has so thoroughly confounded and consumed us was completed, inducing in most of us an odd mixture of relief and regret. The show is over. We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.