O.J. TV: 'The trial of the century' and then some

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O.J. TV: 'The trial of the century' and then some
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 28: Robert Kardashian, Simpson, Robert Shapiro and F. Lee Bailey. (Photo credit should read POO/AFP/Getty Images)
OJ Simpson Mug Shot at the Los Angeles in Los Angeles, California (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
O.J. Simpson confers with his attorneys Carl Douglas, left front, and Johnnie Cochran Jr., partly hidden, after he waived his right to visit the Bundy Avenue crime scene, in a court hearing before all parties in the case toured four prominent sites in Simpson's double-murder trial Sunday, February 12, 1995, in Los Angeles. 9AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lance Ito yells in court during the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial in Los Angeles Friday, Sept. 29, 1995. (AP Photo/Eric Draper, Pool)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 23: Defense attorneys for murder defendant O.J. Simpson Robert Shapiro(L), Johnnie Cochran Jr.(R) and F. Lee Bailey(R,rear) enter the courthouse for the first day of the trial 23 January in Los Angeles. Jurors in the case will reportedly be allowed to see a photograph of the crime scene during opening statements, Superior Court Judge lance Ito ruled 23 January. (COLOR KEY:Barricade marker is red.) AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read Dan GROSHANG/AFP/Getty Images)
BRENTWOOD, : An unidentified man and woman place flowers on the walkway of Nicole Brown Simpson's condominium in Brentwood, California, 12 June. Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman were allegedly murdered at the Bundy Avenue site by O.J. Simpson on 12 June 1994. To mark the first anniversary of the murder, people were permitted by police to pause at the crime scene for a moment. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read MIKE NELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 04: Daily News front page dated Oct. 4, 1995, Headlines: HOME FREE, After senational double-murder acquittal O.J. walks back into mansion a free man., Al Cowlings, left, and unidentified man, flank O.J. as he walks around his Brentwood estate., O.J. Simpson, (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
SANTA MONICA, UNITED STATES: Demonstrators Larry Green (L) and Morris Griffin (R) yell at each other outside the Santa Monica Courthouse where the first day of opening arguements is underway in the O.J. Simpson wrongful death civil lawsuit 23 October. In 1995 Simpson was aquitted in his criminal trial for the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. AFP PHOTO Vince BUCCI/mn (Photo credit should read Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty Images)
SANTA MONICA, UNITED STATES: A woman who identified herself only as Elf from Brentwood holds a picture of O.J. Simpson as she stands in front of the Santa Monica Courthouse in California where evidence proceedings in the the O.J. Simpson civil lawsuit are taking place 17 September. The trial will get underway with jury selection 18 September. AFP PHOTO Vince BUCCI (Photo credit should read Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES: A group of supporters of OJ Simpson demonstrate near Santa Monica Court in Santa Monica, CA, 27 January. The case is expected to go to the jury 27 January. AFP PHOTO/Hector MATA (Photo credit should read HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - JUNE 17: O.J. Simpson at a press conference where he announced his upcoming role in an episode of the CBS drama: 'Medical Center.' Image dated June 17, 1969. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
Football coach Bo Schembechler of Michigan and football player O.J. Simpson meet on the Rose Bowl field before the game between Michigan and Southern California in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 1, 1977. (AP Photo)
Jason Simpson, 2, wearing his dad's number 32, gets a piggy-back ride from his dad O.J. Simpson in Buffalo, N.Y., Oct. 10, 1973. (AP Photo)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - CIRCA 1979: Running back O.J. Simpson #32 of the San Francisco 49ers looks on from the sidelines during an NFL football game at Candlestick Park circa 1979 in San Francisco, California. Simpson played for the 49ers from 1978-79. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame running back O.J. Simpson (32) carries the ball during a 38-14 victory over the Denver Broncos on October 5, 1975, at Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Tony Tomsic/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - CIRCA 1979: Running back O.J. Simpson #32 of the San Francisco 49ers stands on the sidelines with his mother Eunice Simpson before the start of an NFL football game at Candlestick Park circa 1979 in San Francisco, California. Simpson played for the 49ers from 1978-79. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
FROGMEN -- Pictured: (middle) O.J. Simpson, (far right) Evan Handler (Photo by NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
O.J. Simpson aka Orenthal James Simpson serves as a NBC Sports sideline reporter for AFC Wild Card playoff game between the Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Jan. 9, 1994. (Photo by Kirby Lee/WireImage)
NBC Sports commentator and former professional football player OJ Simpson, center, watches a Thanksgiving Day football game with United States troops deployed in the region for Operation Desert Shield, Saudi Arabia, 1991. (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - JAUNARY 13: NBC Analyst O.J. Simpson poses with the Raiderettes during the 1990 AFC Divisional Playoffs game with the Cincinnati Bengals against Los Angeles Raiders at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on January 13, 1991 in Los Angeles, California. The Raiders won 20-10. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
American former football player O.J. Simpson (right) and his wife Nicole Brown Simpson (1959 - 1994) arrive at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater for the premiere of the film 'When Harry Met Sally,' Beverly Hills, California, July 14, 1989. (Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
ATLANTA - DECEMBER 16: Running back O.J. Simpson #32 of the San Francisco 49ers relaxes in the locker room before the final game of his career against the Atlanta Falcons at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on December 16, 1979 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Falcons defeated the Niners 31-21. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/Getty Images)
ATLANTA - DECEMBER 16: Running back O.J. Simpson #32 of the San Francisco 49ers talks to reporters after the final game of his career against the Atlanta Falcons at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on December 16, 1979 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Falcons defeated the Niners 31-21. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO - DECEMBER 9: Running back O.J. Simpson #32 of the San Francisco 49ers shakes hands with John McKay, his former coach at USC and current head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, before his final home game at Candlestick Park on December 9, 1979 in San Francisco, California. The Niners defeated the Bucs 23-7. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/Getty Images)
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 12 -- Aired 02/25/1978 -- Pictured: Host O.J. Simpson during the monologue on February 25, 1978 (Photo by NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 12 -- Aired 02/25/1978 -- Pictured: (l-r) Laraine Newman, O.J. Simpson during 'Weekend Update' on February 25, 1978 (Photo by NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 12 -- Aired 02/25/1978 -- Pictured: (l-r) Bill Murray as farmer, Laraine Newman as farmers daughter, Garrett Morris as farmer, O.J. Simpson as Mandingo during the 'Mandingo II' skit on February 25, 1978 (Photo by NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Close-up of American former football player, actor, and sports commentator O.J. Simpson in a baseball cap on the 'The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour,' December 21, 1973. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)
American actor Chad Everett (right) examines American football player and sometime actor O.J. Simpson in a scene from the debut episode (called 'The Last 10 Yards') of the television series 'Medical Center,' Los Angeles, California, September 24, 1960. Everett listens to Simpson's head with his stethoscope. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 12 -- Aired 02/25/1978 -- Pictured: (l-r) John Belushi as Samurai Futaba, O.J. Simpson as Joe during the 'Samurai Night Fever' skit on February 25, 1978 (Photo by NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
OJ Simpson & Nicole Simpson & family (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
UNITED STATES - MARCH 17: OJ Simpson (Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES: Mark Thomas (C) watches his portable television outside the Los Angeles Criminal courts building and celebrates with others 03 October as a not guilty verdict is read by the jury in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Jurors deliberated for less then a day before reaching a verdict in the highly publicized case. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - CIRCA 2000: O.J. Simpson golfing at the Legend golf course. (Photo by David Handschuh/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
395562 01: Former NFL star O.J. Simpson talks with one of his defense attorneys on the first day of jury selection October 9, 2001 at a Dade County courtroom in Miami, FL. Simpson, who was acquitted in 1994 in the murders of his ex-wife and her friend, is on trial for allegedly attacking a motorist in the Miami suburb of Kendall, Florida in December of 2000. If found guilty, Simpson could face up to 16 years in prison. (Pool Photo/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 16: In handcuffs, O.J. Simpson is transferred by police officers to the Clark County Detention Center in Las Vegas, Nev., after being arrested in connection with an armed robbery of sports memorabilia, in a hotel room at the Palace Station Hotel-Casino. Simpson claimed he was trying to retrieve stolen items of his that were being offered for sale. (Photo by Debbie Egan-Chin/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Room 1203 at the Palace Station Hotel & Casino is seen in Las Vegas, Friday, Sept. 19, 2008. The room is where O.J. Simpson allegedly commited felony kidnapping, armed robbery and conspiracy related to a September 13, 2007 confrontation with sports memorabilia dealers. Simpson and another defendant are current on trial.(AP Photo/John Locher, Pool)
FILE - This May 13, 2013 file photo shows O.J. Simpson at an evidentiary hearing in Clark County District Court, in Las Vegas. Simpson's lawyers have until mid-April to file their written Nevada Supreme Court appeal for a new trial for the former football star in his Las Vegas armed robbery case. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, Pool, file)
O.J. Simpson arrives for a fifth day of an evidentiary hearing in Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Friday, May 17, 2013. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison as a result of his October 2008 conviction for armed robbery and kidnapping charges, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial, claiming he had such bad representation that his conviction should be reversed. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus, Reuters)
O.J. Simpson, supporters Sabrina Scotto, sister, Carmelita Durio, Tom Scotto, and Sandra Scotto react as he Simpson is found guilty on all 12 charges, including felony kidnapping, armed robbery and conspiracy at the Clark County Regional Justice Center in Las Vegas on Friday, Oct. 3, 2008. The verdict comes thirteen years to the day after he was acquitted of double murder charges. (AP Photo/Daniel Gluskoter, Pool)
O.J. Simpson's attorney Yale Galanter holds a book written by witness Thomas Riccio in court during Simpson's trial in Las Vegas, Monday, Sept. 22, 2008. Simpson faces 12 charges, including felony kidnapping, armed robbery and conspiracy. (AP Photo/John Locher, Pool)
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NEW YORK (AP) -- O.J. TV was a national pastime.

The O.J. Simpson Show - with its centerpiece a former football great on trial for double homicide - commandeered the media, especially television, along with a spellbound audience for nearly 16 months.

It began as little more than a juicy crime story: the ex-wife of a celebrity and a male acquaintance slain outside her home on June 12, 1994.

Then things took a shocking turn: Simpson, initially seen as the grieving former husband, became the accused.

But O.J. TV erupted in full force late in the afternoon of June 17, with Simpson (charged with the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman) the focus of a slow-speed police chase in his white Ford Bronco, apparently considering suicide en route.

More than 90 million Americans watched, thunderstruck, as TV helicopters tracked this beyond-bizarre motorcade along the freeways of Los Angeles, then, after some 90 minutes, witnessed Simpson surrender in the driveway of his Brentwood home.

"You didn't dare turn away," says Greta Van Susteren, now a Fox News Channel host, who became a legal analyst for CNN's trial coverage. "Everybody was watching it, live, wondering if O.J. was going to blow his brains out. That's when the hook was set for everything that followed."

What followed was labeled the Trial of the Century, with TV perfectly poised to give it the full treatment, serving as its primary dispatcher and enabler. Endowed with cameras in the courtroom, this was the first big TV trial. It was lurid, star-driven and racially charged, with elements of glitz, sex and domestic violence all wrapped in mystery and supercharged with who-will-win suspense.

And it had the perfect headliner.

"Here was a man who had transcended sports and even race, a guy who had achieved single-name status," says Jack Ford, now CBS News Legal Analyst, who covered the trial for NBC News.

O.J. TV kept viewers hooked with jury selection that fall, through the trial's start in January 1995, then through months of proceedings, carried gavel-to-gavel by numerous networks and recapped daily on numerous shows.

It swamped the airwaves, from network evening newscasts (where the Simpson case was the most heavily covered story of 1995) to magazine shows, talk shows and CNN, whose ratings increased eight-fold.

"At the beginning we knew it was a big story," says Ford, "but I don't think any of us anticipated how the public would be so invested in it."

The case, with all its constituent parts, became second-nature to viewers: Nicole's front walkway on Bundy Drive and O.J.'s towering hedge on Rockingham Avenue. Ron Goldman's father's upturned mustache. O.J. houseguest Kato Kaelin's flowing locks. Judge Lance Ito on the bench pecking at his laptop. Robert Kardashian (the father of future TV dominatrices Kim, Khloe and Kourtney) as O.J. lawyer and hanger-on. And so many more, including O.J., of course: somber, stone-faced, always leading-man handsome.

The jury was unseen, out of camera range, but it, like the rest of Simpsonalia, was scrutinized, analyzed and argued about. And not just by the scores of on-air commentators. The Simpson case was Topic A among the watching hordes, and television welcomed their opinions. Thus was O.J. TV a forerunner of today's interactive media.

Geraldo Rivera's nightly CNBC talk show, all-consumed with the Simpson case, invited viewer call-ins. E! solicited viewers' faxes, one of which, shown on camera, advised prosecutor Marcia Clark to "take a pill and chill, or O.J. will walk."

Then on Oct. 3, 1995, the jury's shocking verdict was pronounced. Identical courtroom video was carried by ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and The WB broadcast networks, and by cable channels CNBC, CNN, Court TV, E! Entertainment, ESPN and Headline News, with 91 percent of all TVs in use tuned to this bombshell.

O.J. TV came to an end with the audience deeply divided on his guilt. But there was unity on something else: Viewers wanted more and since then, have joined the media in hopefully framing each new trial (Timothy McVeigh, Scott Petersen, Casey Anthony, Oscar Pistorius) as the Trial of the Century.

Yet none has been. As tawdry, tragic melodrama, nothing has come close to O.J. TV, the first and only of its kind.

"It was a freak event in television," says Van Susteren.

Other news stories have seized society and rattled the culture. News will never lose its capacity to startle, grip and horrify its audience en masse. But such seismic TV stories as 9/11 and Katrina didn't unfold in a courtroom.

With a bland, cramped LA courtroom its main stage, O.J. TV boasted characters, theatrics and novelty ensuring its reign as the Trial for the Ages. To expect it to be equaled by a future trial is to imagine that, someday, four young Liverpool lads could spark another round of Beatlemania.

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