Media Juiced on Celebrity Hype

All three network news broadcasts carried the O.J. story on September 19, when the too-familiar sight of former football star O.J. Simpson in a courtroom proved too tantalizing to pass up.  Since his arrest over the weekend, rough estimates put the O.J. coverage at close to 15 hours, according to a September 20th article in The Washington Times.

The Times article “New Arrest Juices Press” is a fascinating look at just how much coverage this story has received, complete with parallels to the media frenzy surrounding O.J.'s previous trial in 1994.  Reporter Jennifer Harper wrote, “Since Simpson was arrested Sunday and charged with possession of a deadly weapon and nine other felony counts, the media coverage has been wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling. Just like the old days. A decade ago, a thousand-member media horde spent 30 months covering Simpson's legal entanglements, brightening the careers of, among others, MSNBC's Dan Abrams and prosecutor Marcia Clark, who landed a $4 million book deal and a stint on Entertainment Tonight in the aftermath.”

ABC and NBC both reported that Marcia Clark was present in the courtroom at O.J.'s hearing in Las Vegas.

The circus atmosphere surrounding the proceedings was also noted by all three networks, which all succumbed to the urge to remind viewers of the infamous Bronco chase by showing Simpson being driven away in a blue-gray van.  Watching the news reports, one wondered whether they were more about Simpson's release from a Clark County jail or about the press coverage of Simpson's release from county jail.  The networks all seemed to be suffering from a case of deja vu and not knowing how to handle it.

In her article, Harper had S. Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, weigh in on what the O.J. story meant for the news media.  He said that while the spectacle of O.J. in court is a dream for cable news, it was a “nightmare” for “print and hard-news types.”  His observations make sense after watching the networks struggle with how to cover the September 19 story.

Harper's Washington Times story put more perspective on the “been here before” aspect of the coverage of Simpson's current legal troubles.  Here is a run down of what she pulled together:

    “CNN, Fox News and other networks have featured tidy two-minute O.J. updates, on average, four times an hour. A rough estimate reveals that Simpson already has received almost 15 hours of coverage on the three major news channels in the days since his arrest. The first time around, the twin trials generated huge audience interest, with equally huge ratings spikes on CNN in particular. Judging from preliminary numbers from Nielsen, there's a little bounce — but no lightning strikes. On Monday, 1.6 million viewers tuned into Fox News and 910,000 to CNN. The next day, the numbers were 1.8 million and 956,000 respectively.”

Harper also reported that the economic benefit to Las Vegas could reach $50 million in extra revenue from journalists' expenses.

In an interesting compare and contrast, Harper reminded readers that the O.J. verdict in the 1997 civil suit was announced while President Clinton gave the State of the Union address, “prompting broadcasters to offer a split screen, and garnering Mr. Clinton's speech the smallest audience on record.”  Harper's story included MarketWatch's managing editor Tom Bemis's warning that “coverage of the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics and both political conventions could be compromised if Simpson's newest trial takes place next summer.”

Now that is entertaining reading.

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.