News Corp. Drops O.J. TV Special, Book - Broadcasting & Cable

News Corp. Drops O.J. TV Special, Book

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With the growing controversy over O.J. Simpson: If I Did It, Here's How It Happened, News Corp. has cancelled publisher Judith Regan’s Fox interview of Simpson in a two-part sweeps special, as well as the publication of the book.

In a statement issued Monday, News Corp. leader Rupert Murdoch called the project "ill-considered"—though declined to elaborate on how it originated—and apologized for any pain it caused the families of the murdered victims.

The decision follows several affiliates' decision to not air it. Over the weekend, Pappas Broadcasting and Lin Broadcasting announced they would preempt the show in a total of nine Fox affiliate markets and more were anticipated.

Speaking Monday on Fox News Channel, Pappas said the program was "un-airable because it was a farce" and "the reaction of the American people wasn't visceral, it was intelligent."

Of the viewer comments, he said, "You should have heard first their disbelief, then their outrage, that anyone would consider aiding and abetting a criminal."

He praised the decision to ax both the TV special and book, saying "principle was finally established over profit" at News Corp.

Pappas had planned to preempt the special on its stations in Omaha and Lincoln, Neb.; Fresno, Calif.; and Dakota Dunes, S.D. Lin was looking to do the same on Fox affiliates in Mobile, Ala.; Toledo, Ohio; Albuquerque, N.M.; and Providence, R.I.

According to an AP report, the Pappas stations said they did not want to help Simpson profit from the project.

On Friday, after worldwide condemnation of Fox’s two-part sweeps special O.J. Simpson: If I Did It, Here’s How It Happened, North Dakota’s Prime Cities Broadcasting was the first to announce it would refuse to air the interview.

Historically, affiliates topple like dominoes after the first bows out and Pappas and Lin quickly followed. The special, dubbed by one critic as "the most despicable sweeps-month stunt in history," was scheduled to air next week on Nov 27 and Nov. 29, the final day of sweeps.

Problems with the project had mounted dramatically after Fox announced last week that it would air the two-part interview with Simpson just prior to the book’s Nov. 30 release from Regan’s imprint at Harper Collins, which is also owned by News Corp.

Attacked from a variety of quarters, including such Fox News notables as Bill O’Reilly and Geraldo Rivera, the TV project had faced poor advertising prospects.

Sponsors appeared unlikely to want to be associated with the special, which could have subjected them to boycotts by angry viewers. Also, if it had aired commercial-free, Nielsen would not have counted it toward Fox’s November average, erasing any ratings spike it would have otherwise received for the sweeps period.

Beyond Monday’s statement, Fox has remained silent on the subject. In its initial announcement last week, Mike Darnell, executive VP of alternative programming, said, "This is an interview that no one thought would ever happen. It’s the definitive last chapter in the Trial of the Century."

But John Tupper, chairman-emeritus of the Fox affiliate board and head of Prime Cities, which operates KNDX Bismarck and KXND Minot, the 160th-ranked market, and low-power stations in Dickinson and Williston, N.D., described the special as "unsuitable" for broadcasting.

"We have recorded our concerns with the network, and we are waiting for a response at this point," he said. "My stations will not be running the shows."

Tupper had previously refused to air Fox movies with violence and sexual issues but this marked the first time he had not run a special, mainly because the network had unveiled them too late for advanced station screenings.

This time, however, Fox gave plenty of advanced notice that it would run an interview turned down by other networks.

If News Corp. had pulled the plug on TV special but kept the book alive, it could have faced even more grief. On Monday, B&C had speculated that its intention may have been to announce the TV interview, then pull it after gaining attention for the book that hypothetically describes how Simpson would have killed ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and bystander Ron Goldman in 1994. The former football great was acquitted of the crimes the following year but held liable at a 1997 civil trial.

Having lived through previous controversies originating from Darnell’s reality domain, most notably the 2000 special Who Wants To Marry a Multimillionaire?, Fox and News Corp. were undoubtedly aware of the outcry a Simpson special would cause.

News of the Fox special, which the network described as an unrestricted two-hour interview, had dominated TV and radio talk shows for nearly a week since it was announced. The victims’ families were prominently featured discussing the pain that the show and book had dredged up for them.

On Wednesday, Goldman’s father, Fred Goldman, told CNN’s Larry King, "Don’t watch the show. Don’t buy the book. Send a message loud and clear." Meanwhile, ABC’s Barbara Walters said on The View that she had turned down a Simpson interview.

But analysts had nonetheless expected curiosity to drive viewers to the special in huge numbers.

There had been some support for the special among major Fox affiliates. One station executive, who asked not to be identified, said the special represented the logical conclusion to the "freak show" that characterized the criminal trial more than a decade ago. He had no intention to preempt what would be an astronomically rated special.

Even without commercials, the interview would have boosted ratings for local newscasts following it, which is where stations make most of their ad revenue.

While many stations had reported getting scores of angry viewer emails and phone calls, some said that received few protests, and noted the ones they did appeared to be part of an organized campaign.

Fox had sent speaking points to affiliates to address the concerns of advertisers and viewers, according to affiliates.

Richard Jones, VP-general manager of Fox affiliate XETV San Diego for the past five years, had said if the special aired, he would have run it commercial-free with PSAs for victims’ rights and abused women, while dedicating his newscasts to those subjects.

Jones had detailed the station’s plans in email responses to 150 outraged viewers, one of whom called XETV’s strategy a “public service.”

Personally, Jones said he found the Fox special “obscene” and “immoral,” calling it a “wink-wink” confession on Simpson’s part. He believes Simpson’s motivation was to get back into the spotlight after previously enjoying “30 years of public adulation.”

But Jones admitted to having a difficult time deciding whether the program would be considered obscene by broadcast standards.

He had labeled Fox’s silence on the subject “odd” and, prior to Monday’s announcement withdrawing the TV special and book, said, “This is the first time that I’ve been embarrassed to say that I’m a Fox affiliate.”

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