Stations Kill O.J. Special

Controversy over Simpson interview may snowball

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 is refusing to air the interview.

Historically, affiliates topple like dominoes after the first bows out. That could leave the fate of the Nov. 27 and 29 special, dubbed by one critic as “the most despicable sweeps-month stunt in history,” up in the air. Nov. 29 is the last day of sweeps.

Couple that with poor advertising prospects and mass amounts of negative publicity, and the possibility remains that Fox could still decide to yank publisher Judith Regan's interview of Simpson entirely.

Simpson's book, If I Did It, is scheduled for release Nov. 30 under Regan's imprint at Harper Collins, which is owned by Fox-parent News Corp.

Major advertisers appear unlikely to want to be associated with the special, which could subject them to sponsor boycotts by angry viewers. If the special airs commercial-free, Nielsen would not count it, erasing any ratings spike Fox would get to improve its performance this November.

At press time Friday, Fox was declining to comment on any aspect of the story. 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., describes 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 says. “My stations will not be running the shows.”

Tupper, who was unaware of other affiliates that had pulled the Simpson interview yet, has previously refused to air movies with violence and sexual issues. However, this will mark the first time he has not run a Fox special, mainly because the network has unveiled them too late for advanced station screenings.

By announcing a few weeks in advance that it had obtained the Simpson interview turned down by other networks, Fox has achieved a primary goal of gaining worldwide attention for the book, which hypothetically describes how he would have killed ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and bystander Ron Goldman. The former football great was acquitted of criminal charges in the 1994 murders but was held liable at a 1997 civil trial.

News of the Fox special, which the network has described as an unrestricted two-hour interview, dominated TV and radio talk shows last week. 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 nonetheless expect curiosity to drive viewers to the special in huge numbers.

Having lived through previous controversies originating from Darnell's reality domain, most notably the 2000 special Who Wants To Marry a Multimillionaire?, the network was undoubtedly aware of the outcry the Simpson special would cause.

By pulling it, Fox could greatly diminish the prospect of viewer backlash after a few days, when radio-talk-show hosts and the rest of the media turn their attention elsewhere.

But executives at some major Fox affiliates, who ask not to be identified, see the special as the logical conclusion to the “freak show” that characterized the criminal trial more than a decade ago.

They have no preemption plans for what they expect to be an astronomically rated special and are hopeful there will be enough advertisers. Despite a bevy of media criticism and some internal questions, they report getting few protest calls and e-mails from concerned viewers—and say the ones they have received appear to be part of an organized campaign.

According to one station executive, Fox has sent speaking points to affiliates to address the concerns of advertisers and viewers.


Syndication and NATPE

The first-run syndication business is broken. Stations blame syndicators for ignoring their needs. Syndicators stay stations won't invest in their shows. As talk shows tank, studios turn to cheaper game and court shows. With January's NATPE confab just around the corner, can the system be fixed?