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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

Fox, O.J. and Right to Speedy TV Movie

August 17, 1994|HOWARD ROSENBERG

As if the Simpson-Goldman homicide case and its coverage weren't something of a mind-shattering acid trip already.

The case roared into the infra-ray theater of the bent and screwy in a big way last week when Simpson's lead attorney, Robert L. Shapiro, appealed to the Fox network's "common sense and principles of fair play" in urging postponement of "The O.J. Simpson Story," its microwaved, quickie movie set to air Sept. 13. That's six days before the scheduled start of jury selection for Simpson's trial for the knifing murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Lyle Goldman.

Common sense? Fair play? Was Shapiro kidding? Was he getting in touch with his inner child? He is either naive about Fox (unlikely), giddily optimistic or a supreme humorist. The only thing goofier than his appeal to Fox's integrity would have been the Simpson prosecution team appealing to his "common sense and principles of fair play," or vice versa.

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Fault Shapiro for using words that are not in the vocabulary of Fox, which probably thought he was speaking a foreign language. Now if he had appealed to its "principles of cynical opportunism," he might have gotten somewhere.

After all, this is the network that last April barely outraced CBS onto the air with a speed-stitched movie about the Menendez case in advance of the brothers' second trial for the shotgun slayings of their parents.

Given the proximity of the Simpson movie to the Simpson trial, the calculated choice of Sept. 13 as the air date for this latest docudrama, probably held together by snaps and Velcro, is even more reprehensible. Shrill shrieks from the media have already diverted the case down numerous surreal alleys and dead ends, and a valid concern now is that the timing of the movie will make it even more difficult to impanel an impartial jury.

Concern has been ongoing over Simpson getting a fair trial. His status as a wealthy black celebrity and the ex-husband of a white woman have sparked polarizing debates about jurisprudence vis a vis classism and racism. Some in the media have crashed through the delicate tundra of this issue like oafish Abominable Snowmen, their heavy-footed coverage creating more noise than light. And now, when needed least, here come those cement clodhoppers from Fox.

Call the movie good business--it's obvious now that there is wide public interest in virtually anything with an O.J. logo--but bad citizenship. Not that Fox appears to care.

Predictably, Shapiro's appeal was rejected by Fox. Nor, just as predictably, was he able to persuade a judge to block the movie, issues of free speech and prior restraint correctly coming into play as they did earlier when attorneys for the Menendez brothers failed to stop the Fox movie about their clients from airing in Los Angeles.

Legally, Fox is on firm ground. The price of free media is media that sometimes behave abysmally. This is just another case of a network doing something because it legally can, regardless of the separate ethical or moral questions. If the courts say you can do it, you do it. Period. End of debate, even if television's right to a speedy movie may conflict with the accused's right to a trial that is not only speedy but also fair.

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But not to worry, assures the always tasteful Fox, saying in a statement that its movie about Simpson "in no way suggests his guilt or innocence," but instead draws on the "public record" for its "intimate look at his life story."

Just what Fox means by "intimate" remains to be seen, as does whether the movie's depiction of the "public record" includes those 911 calls that Nicole Simpson made concerning the behavior of O.J. Simpson, or of any other material that could reinforce either positive or negative impressions of Simpson.

As further justification for its revved-up account of Simpson, Fox notes that, by the time of the trial, "the media will have, collectively, broadcast hundreds of hours on the same subject." That being the case, "The O.J. Simpson Story" appears redundant by Fox's own definition. The producers presumably know nothing the media haven't already reported. And what illumination comes from a story that regurgitates the "public record"? O.J., the kid who pulls himself up by his bootstraps? The All-American and All-Pro running back? The hurdling Hertz spokesman? Where will the victims--Nicole Simpson and Goldman--be in all of this?

And surely it won't end here. What comes next on TV's exploitation agenda, "Ben & Jerry's: The Movie"? In this climate, anything is possible.

Instead of enlightenment from "The O.J. Simpson Story," expect only the kind of huge exclamation mark that such tawdry, cash-grubbing, hurried-up projects inevitably attach to sensational crime cases, in all likelihood assuring Fox the epic audience that it is seeking.

Screw the consequences.

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