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THE SIMPSON LEGACY : Obsession: DID THE MEDIA OVERFEED A STARVING PUBLIC? : CHAPTER TWO: A SHARED ADVENTURE : 'A national, real-life, cross-channel soap opera.'

October 09, 1995|DAVID SHAW | Times Staff Writer

The media made a "big deal" of the O.J. Simpson case in less time than it used to take Simpson to run the length of a football field. The case became not just a media circus but a cultural event or, in the words of Frank Rich, a columnist for the New York Times, an event that "hijacked our culture."

And not just "our" (i.e. American) culture.

A men's store in Barbados had a special sale on "Johnnie Cochran suits," and a guru at an ashram in India asked the wife of actor Michael York to "tell me about O.J.," according to Dominick Dunne, who covered the trial for Vanity Fair and is writing a book about the case.

The Simpson case drew worldwide media attention through CNN and through the London-based Reuters news service and other international and foreign news services and TV stations. News organizations from more than a dozen foreign countries sent reporters to cover the trial. As the Washington Post reported early this year, "The case is debated at dinner tables in Amman and Beirut, broadcast live in Britain, analyzed in magazine spreads in Germany, bannered across the front pages of Israeli newspapers and sneered at in France."

Eugene Roberts, managing editor of the New York Times, was traveling in Asia last summer and found that "people who don't even understand the [English] language were watching it on TV and having it explained to them."

When Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister, visited the United States, Dunne said she "wanted to know about O.J." Dunne also said that when Benazir Bhutto, the prime minister of Pakistan, came to Los Angeles last spring and was asked "whom she would like to meet at dinner at Jimmy's, the fashionable Beverly Hills restaurant," she named Marcia Clark and Robert L. Shapiro. President Clinton said last year that when Boris Yeltsin, the president of Russia, came to the United States, his first comment after stepping off the plane was, "Do you think O.J. did it?"

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Media and public attention were the most pronounced, of course, in the United States, where daily live television broadcasts of the trial sent ratings skyrocketing for CNN, Court TV and E! Entertainment Television--and sent ratings plummeting for daytime soap operas. There were many weeks during the trial when every one of the nation's 15 highest-rated programs on basic cable networks were segments of the trial telecast by CNN. Over the course of the trial, CNN ratings posted a fivefold increase. Circulation for the supermarket tabloid Star jumped 10%.

The trial was also broadcast live, from start to finish, on several local television and all-news radio stations throughout the country. On many computer services, Simpson "chat boards" were second only to sex / dating forums in volume of messages.

Day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and month out, for more than a year, the Simpson case received enormous attention on newscasts in other cities and in the pages of respected daily newspapers and newsmagazines--not to mention publications ranging from the National Enquirer to the New Yorker.

Even the most vacuous characters in the Simpson melodrama had their 14 1/2 minutes of fame. Brian (Kato) Kaelin was the subject of a cover story in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar. He was featured in a six-page fashion spread in GQ. He got a book contract and a nightclub act.

More than 30 books have already been published on the Simpson case, half a dozen of which have sold more than half a million copies each. So many more are planned, including one by the staff of the Los Angeles Times, that bookstores may soon have to create a special Simpson section.

Media coverage of the case has been so exhaustive that a small newspaper in Carrollton, Ga., received nationwide attention when it announced early this year that it would publish no more Simpson stories until the jury had concluded its deliberations. New management lifted the ban in mid-August, but the paper didn't publish its first Page 1 Simpson story until the jury reached its verdict.

When the verdicts were announced last week, the nation stood still for 10 minutes. More than 100 million Americans were watching on television. Congressional hearings were rescheduled. So was the daily State Department briefing. Airline flights were delayed. Long-distance calls dropped almost 60%. Stock trading plummeted.

It was a fitting ending to a process that had held the nation in thrall for 16 months.

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According to the Cambridge Human Resources Group in Chicago, the nation's work force had been so distracted by the Simpson case--talking around the water cooler or photocopying machine, sneaking looks at a television set, listening to the radio--that employers collectively lost an estimated $40 billion in productivity during the course of the case.

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