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2 Stations Gambling Big on the O.J. Trial : Media: Audiences are flocking to KTLA-TV and KNX-AM. But don't think that means the stations are profiting financially.

August 05, 1995|JERRY CROWE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KTLA-TV Channel 5, the only Los Angeles television station providing gavel-to-gavel coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial, has quadrupled its daytime ratings since the trial started in January.

KNX-AM (1070), the only L.A. radio station offering uninterrupted coverage of the proceedings, has posted its highest ratings since the Gulf War in 1991.

But, in the event that these proceedings end in a hung jury and there is a retrial, KTLA and KNX won't necessarily present the same type of comprehensive coverage. This is one instance where higher ratings don't translate to higher advertising revenues.

Station representatives said that covering the trial has hurt them financially because of reduced commercial time resulting from limited breaks in the testimony.

And a retrial, besides being costly, might also be repetitive.

"I think there would be a sizable audience, but I don't know if it would be anything like the audience for this one," said Bob Sims, KNX news director. "A lot of what makes this trial interesting is the edge-of-your-seat nature of it--the surprises that seem almost daily to pop up. It would be missing all of that. It would be interesting, but I don't know that it would warrant wall-to-wall coverage."

Still, neither Sims nor general managers Greg Nathanson of KTLA and George Nicholaw of KNX are ready to rule out O.J. II as a worthy sequel.

"You can say it's going to be a repeat," Nicholaw said, "but would the case be presented the same way the second time around? I doubt that it would be. I think each side would revamp its presentation considerably. I think it would be a shorter trial.

"And because of those factors, I'd probably be more inclined to say to you right now, 'Oh, yeah, I'd probably be very interested in presenting that.' "

Said Nathanson: "It's a real-life soap opera and historically, whether it was 'Dallas' or 'Knots Landing' or 'Beverly Hills, 90210,' soaps don't repeat well. But it might. It's still a fascinating story."

The public's continued fascination with all things O.J.--from Kato to the bloody gloves to Mark Fuhrman to the DNA hearings--has both surprised and delighted Nathanson.

"I thought we could have some big numbers," he said, "but I thought the trial overall would average a 3 or 4 rating, which is not bad for us. But the consistency of the trial--we've been averaging 7s and 8s . . . that really amazes me." (Each ratings point represents 49,362 homes.)

Since the trial's start six months ago, KTLA has jumped from sixth to first in the daytime ratings.

Interest has been so high, in fact, that the station is strongly considering televising at least part of the retrial of the Menendez brothers, probably limiting its coverage to the morning court sessions.

"If there's such an appetite for this kind of programming--it's great storytelling and it's human and there's a beginning, middle and end to the story--we thought maybe we shouldn't let it go so quickly," Nathanson said. "And I thought the Menendez trial could be an interesting follow-up.

"Even though it's a repeated trial, it was never televised in the first place, and it may be a faster-moving trial because there's no DNA and all that. And we think, again, it's a tragic human soap opera. We think it's fascinating. You can't write it better."

In other words, it's not unlike the Simpson trial.

And, despite the costs involved, both stations believe they made the right decision in presenting the proceedings in their entirety.

"I think the argument being made is that you are building your audience in the hope that you will benefit from a larger audience over the long haul to make up for the losses you incur while carrying the trial," KNX's Sims said. "It's kind of a balancing act. . . .

"When you talk about [more than] 50 radio stations in Southern California, and only one was willing to go wall-to-wall with it, you can see the fear of the cost associated with doing it. But [this trial] cried out for somebody to take the plunge and absorb the cost of providing the community with live coverage on the radio."

Nathanson, who proposed last summer that the city's seven VHF television stations share in coverage of the trial, described himself as "real happy" with KTLA's decision to go it alone after the other six dropped out, saying that it has enhanced the station's image.

"The way we've covered it has been very professional," he said, "and I think that's added to our reputation as the most credible news source in Los Angeles."

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