In 2017, O.J. Simpson will become eligible for parole. Since 2008, he has been imprisoned for armed robbery after an attack on a sports memorabilia dealer at a Vegas casino. Recent years, compared with the cacophony of the late-1990s, when Simpson’s double murder trial permanently rewired the media and the culture, have been fairly quiet.
But there’s something stirring in Simp-sonland—and if your eyes are beginning to roll, indulge us for a moment. Two new TV series will revisit the trial of the 20th century in detail: The People v. O. J. Simpson, FX’s 10-part dramatization under the American Crime Story anthology banner; and ESPN’s seven-plus-hour documentary O.J.: Made in America, part of the network’s 30 for 30 franchise. The ESPN series just premiered at Sundance and will air this summer. The FX show launches Feb. 2.
Early word on both is positive, and heavy promotion will keep both top of mind. As entertainment programming, the programs will find audiences, potentially sizable ones. Our point in mentioning them here, in this space, is to look back at TV coverage of the Simpson case some 20 years after the verdict.
We certainly wrestled, throughout the bizarrely distended, twist-filled 15-month trial and its bitter aftermath, with whether Judge Lance Ito should have allowed cameras in the courtroom. It was the decision that instantly turned Court TV into a brand strong enough that Sen. Marco Rubio still thinks it exists. More important, it created a grotesque engine of commerce and a host of unintended consequences. Our argument at the time, which still resonates, was that there needed to be more transparency in the judicial system, not less. Periodically, when there is new sentiment backing cameras in the Supreme Court, we continue to voice our support. The principle is to illuminate the many aspects of due process that often remain in shadows, contrary to the spirit of true democracy.
There is, however, such a thing as overdosing on virtue. By the Simpson trial’s conclusion, Jeffrey Toobin writes in his still-essential book on the case, The Run of His Life (the basis for the FX series), NBC had assigned 40 camera crews to cover reaction to the verdict. ABC had tasked four producers with covering each of the 12 jurors. As a nation, we were no longer being enlightened or educated—we were wallowing in a seemingly unending tide of tawdriness. The defense strategy to muddy the water and implicate the Los Angeles Police Department in a racist conspiracy played not just to a courtroom, but to the entire country. That theory, legitimate in many ways except in the factual context of the case itself, did not exactly help Americans come together and bridge their racial differences. TV warped the proceedings to such a point that Larry King, practically the bail bondsman of L.A. Superior Court during the trial, was set to host a pay-per-view special in which CNN and Turner planned to invest $25 million, with a chunk of proceeds earmarked for Simpson himself. The deal, denied by all but reported by Toobin and others, was scuttled amid the backlash after the case. The viewing public had evidently had its fill.