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A trial too juicy to resist

Casey Anthony's acquittal fuels outrage online as TV outlets reap huge ratings.

July 06, 2011|T.L. Stanley

The media circus came to town, this time not in Los Angeles but in Orlando, Fla.

In a case compared to the courtroom dramas of O.J. Simpson and the Menendez brothers, the trial of Casey Anthony -- if there were any doubts before -- became a full-fledged national legal spectacle Tuesday after outrage erupted over the jury's decision to acquit the young mother on charges she killed her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, with chloroform and duct tape.

Twitter blazed with righteous anger over what was largely viewed as a surprise verdict and anchors for a host of cable news outlets, which had trumpeted their extensive courtroom coverage particularly as the trial picked up momentum with viewers, could barely conceal their shock -- and sometimes did not even try.

"The devil is dancing," said HLN's Nancy Grace, whose vigorous and unabashed pro-prosecution coverage helped lift the central Florida case to national prominence. "There's no way this verdict speaks to the truth."

The case's robust ratings, both locally and nationally, were fueled not only by tabloid-ready details, but also by social media, which routinely hummed with the trial's inner workings, according to media experts. During the trial, local ratings showed that more than half of TV sets in Orlando were tuned into the trial's live coverage at any given time.

But far away from the Disney-dominated tourist hub, trial coverage ratings set new records as well. Viewers latched onto the salacious case and its shocking conclusion, boosting the wall-to-wall coverage on cable channel HLN to the best ratings in its history.

The network, second only to Fox News in June, saw dramatic jumps in its audience, as much as 86% in prime time thanks to extensive trial coverage, with spikes that initially came from the Midwest (Chicago) and South (Atlanta) but expanded to major markets like Los Angeles and New York.

Dubbed "the social media trial of the century" by Time magazine, the case generated untold number of tweets, including from the 9th Judicial Circuit Court itself, where the case was tried. In a sign of the unusual cultural reach of the case, reality TV star Kim Kardashian tweeted Tuesday after the verdict: "WHAT!!!!???!!!! I am speechless."

Caylee-dedicated pages on Facebook gathered tens of thousands of followers and millions of people watched live-stream video feeds of the trial. Within a minute of the verdict on Tuesday, there were thousands of posts and comments, mostly condemning 25-year-old Anthony.

Meanwhile, the Miami Herald, Washington Post, RadarOnline and the Daily Beast were among the outlets to live-stream the case, as did local stations around the country such as WSPA in Spartanburg, S.C. And two media companies, Progressive Lifestyles and Orlando's WESH-TV parent Hearst TV, even launched digital apps with live streaming, news stories, case files and updates -- both of which instantly became big sellers.

Social media certainly played a pivotal role in bringing the case to national attention, but the case at its core may have simply appealed to people's primal instincts, said Stuart Fischoff, a senior editor at the Journal of Media Psychology.

"This is scarier than the average murder case because there's a sacredness that we assign to motherhood," he said. "The idea that a mother could kill her child flies in the face of every archetypal notion we have. It's monstrous. And we're revolted by that, but we're also fascinated. And we want revenge."

The rubber-necking is likely to continue. HLN, which had adopted "Justice for Caylee" as its tagline, will continue to sort through the fallout, trying to interview jurors, witnesses and others involved in the case. And though Anthony escaped conviction on more serious charges, she still faces sentencing for being found guilty of misdemeanor offenses of providing false information to law enforcement.

"We will be fully engaged through sentencing, for national reaction, making sure we meet everybody who played a role," said Scot Safon, HLN's executive vice president. "People who've followed the trial will want that opportunity."

HLN, spearheaded by Nancy Grace, has followed the case since Caylee was reported missing three summers ago. Safon said he'd expected viewer interest around opening statements, closing arguments and other trial high points, but found enough audience demand to add a 5 p.m. daily wrap-up show and expanded prime-time segments.

"We've seen strong and sustained and growing interest throughout the entire trial," he said. "The numbers never wavered."

A litany of lies from Anthony -- that she had a job at Universal Studios and a nanny who kidnapped her child -- have all been uncovered in a case that HLN's Grace has said played out "like a classic Greek tragedy."

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