OJ Simpson Trial Final Television Analysis
In the two decades since the O.J. Simpson trial, much of how we watch and understand television can be traced back to the 16-month span of the broadcast phenomenon which started with a double homicide. We were captivated as a country, spoon fed a justice system that had a new way of solving crimes and freeing those wrongfully convicted, divided racially, and given new ways to become famous. This trial not only impacted our viewing habits but changed the world in terms of law, content intake, and popular culture dramatically for the population of the United States.
Twenty years ago, as viewers were tuning into afternoon television, breaking news hit the airwaves in Southern California. A car chase was reported on the Los Angeles freeway, the 405, which has been and is currently a common televised occurrence. From a first-hand account, I was told that police chases are often televised in Southern California. They receive high ratings because of the “televised sport of the whole ordeal” (Monroe, 2018), and because of the wild fascination the population has, as a whole, to be famous. “Even infamy of the lowest form is highly sought for and regarded by the people of the Southland”(Monroe, 2018).
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This particular day, June 17th, 1994, my mother, Jackie Monroe, popped on the television on her return from work. She had heard of the latest chase by way of breaking news on the radio. Soon thereafter, her sister joined her to begin prepping dinner and joined in the festivities of the latest chase. Soon, she retells, television helicopters joined the chase. Her eyes brighten as the story becomes more detailed. It was reported with great fanfare that the White Ford Bronco that was leading the chase was being driven by Al Cowlings and the passenger was the fugitive, O.J. Simpson, wanted for killing his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. It was nearing 6:30 pm, dinner was yet to be started, when my mother and her sister, just twenty-five minutes south of Los Angeles, climbed into their car headed for adventure. Her detailed story includes racing toward LA, following police helicopters, and a great guess as to where the white Bronco was headed. She ends the story by saying if you watch the reruns of the chase, she and her sister can be seen hanging over the overpass on Stanton and the 91 Freeway in a group of about 100 people urging O.J. to run. That evening, O.J. Simpson, actor and Heisman trophy winning football running back was charged with double murder.
The O.J. Simpson trial changed the face of television as we know it in many ways. As the trial began to be broadcast in a 24-hour news cycle, anyone associated with the trial, and even those reporting the trial, became international celebrities. As the viewers obsession with every aspect of the trial mounted, the decision to carry the trial in a 24-hour format, reporting every player, every twist and turn of the trial, looked to be brilliant. To place the trial time frame in context, this was before live streaming information, before social media, before tweeting. It was just two television channels feeding the information to the viewership as fast as they could. “It made a lot of things look pretty rotten, made things look pretty raw,” said Greta Van Susteren, a former adjunct law professor at Georgetown University who became a star for her legal analysis on CNN during the Simpson proceedings and now hosts a nightly show on Fox News (Babb).
As coverage continued, and the world fed on the constant updates, and the trial permanently changed the way we see the news cycle and how media patterns updated information. This obsession spilled into the print media, where newspapers and magazines featured every piece of information. Not only was viewership at its highest but purchasing of print media began to climb drastically. ” I’d love to say that news coverage changed for the better, but that would be a lie. If anything, the advent of social media and the rush to be first, even if corrections must be made later (I call this “the age of retraction”) have muddied the coverage of breaking news stories, especially those involving celebrities. Sometimes I try to imagine what coverage of the OJ case would have been like if we had been tweeting every new development. Scary (Jaurqui).”
Not only did the Simpson trial change the way we see the news today, the trial opened the door to a generation of reality television and a generation obsessed with it. The trial triggered interest in reality TV, what was happening “in real life”, shows such as Survivor and The Real Housewives, with Faye Resnick fairing the best by creating a franchise out of her friendship with the victim Nicole Brown Simpson into The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Two new channels appeared on the cable scene, specifically airing trials and outcomes, for those still obsessed, Court TV and MSNBC. Speaking of the Simpson Trial and its impact, Roger Cossack, an ESPN contributing legal analyst said, “What it did create was an entirely new television personality — the legal analyst. There was a time when my job did not exist. Simpson changed all of that by tapping into the fascination that the viewers had for the law and trials. There had always been lawyer shows on television (“Perry Mason,” “Matlock”) but this was different; this was real, and we didn’t know how it would turn out (Cossack).”
As the face of television changed because of the O.J. Simpson Trial, the way trials are conducted, and evidence is admitted has been changed. The use of DNA evidence during the trial, with the long, distinct explanations of how the evidence is obtained, processed, and presented, helped the general population to accept this type of evidence into record. Jury members were now knowledgeable and accepting of the new scientific evidence which in the following 10 years helped to clear more than 300 inmates wrongfully convicted in trials previously held. “There will never be another case that has the combination of circumstances, facts and timing that allowed this case to explode,” television commentator Dan Abrams said.
Also following the trial, two of the members of the Simpson defense team, Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, founded The Innocence Project, a non-profit group which enlisted and assigned law students to use DNA evidence to reopen convicted inmates’ cases to ensure guilt or innocence. Before the trial, DNA evidence was seen as a relatively new science technique, both confusing and costly to both the juries and the attorneys. After the trial, people’s perception changed to see that the DNA testing was available for everyone (Babb).
“DNA was so complex and complicated that nobody really asked for it,” Van Susteren said. “They might find some man or woman, usually man, sitting in some county jail someplace in the middle of some state, and all of a sudden after watching O.J. Simpson ? because the world did ? he asks for a DNA test.” The Innocence Project has been a major player in the overturning 316 convictions to date, including some that led to death sentences. “Without the awareness generated by the Simpson case,” Van Susteren said, “some might still be sitting in prisons or waiting for their final punishments (Innocence Project).”
Racial tensions and divides were at an all-time high during the OJ Simpson trial. The media frenzied with information regarding the case and opinions often relied on race. “When you ask people today, African Americans will overwhelmingly say that, not that he’s not guilty, but the government didn’t prove that he was guilty,” said Ogletree, the Harvard law professor. “White people will say that he killed two white people and got away with it.” Los Angeles became a hub of racial tensions during the nineties as video tape of police officers excessively beating Rodney King and the subsequent acquittal of the police officers responsible, causing the infamous Los Angeles race riots. The media sensation around the OJ trial took place against the backdrop of an America racially divided in its opinion on the case. These tensions still exist today; those not even alive at the time have opinions on the case. OJ Simpson will always be a symbol of racial divide in a country that hasn’t moved on even since Simpson’s release. Television dramatizations, the protests in the NFL, and how the media still sensationalizes racial tensions in America can all be drawn back to this two-decade old case (Enomoto).
America loves celebrities and athletes are no exception. However, due to the violent nature of the OJ Simpson case, trust in athletes was compromised for several years. Football players Michael Vick, caught for animal cruelty, and Aaron Hernandez, for murder, have added to this, making headlines for violence in recent years. “In the viewers’ mind’s eye, this was not an isolated event,” Steinberg said of the Simpson case. “One event has the psychological impact of a thousand events.” Even this week in the news this week, Kareem Hunt, NFL Kansas City Chiefs was just in trouble for assault allegations from his wife. Athletes are often immortalized for their physical abilities and these examples show that no one is invincible (Babb).
Probably the most influential thing to come out of the OJ Simpson trial in terms of popular culture was what spawned from Simpson’s defense lawyer, Robert Kardashian. With his wife Kris, their children Kim, Kortney, Khloé, and Rob created a popular culture empire unlike anything we’ve experienced before. Along with the main Kardashians, Kris went on to remarry Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner, a major advocate for the trans visibility movement, and had children, most notably Kendall and Kylie Jenner. These cast and family became more than famous, they became a brand onto themselves with their own television reality show, spinoffs, makeup and clothing lines, modeling contracts, books, and apps. They are a dynasty that is famous for being themselves for a living and we absorb that content constantly as the American dream has now been redefined by their everyday lives. Robert Kardashian passed away in 2003 but would have no idea how influential his name would be and how it redefined popular culture forever (Miller).
Today, evidence of these kinds of assaults are easily accessed and shared via social media but Nicole Brown’s 911 calls featuring an enraged O.J. in the background along with pictures documenting the extent of her injuries were a crucial piece of evidence against Simpson. Domestic violence was not commonplace discussion among Americans, but this case brought it to the forefront bringing about the passing of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. While the jury didn’t consider the lethal consequences of domestic violence, America was now more aware and willing to act (Diaz).
As the coverage of the slow speed chase changed from regional to national, and then to round-the -clock television coverage of the Simpson trial, the country began to divide along racial lines, guilty and not guilty. The trial became a drug that the population of the country couldn’t live without. “What I realized is, this is entertainment,” said Gerald Uelmen, one of Simpson’s defense attorneys. “This is not news (Babb).”
In the twenty years since the trial of O.J. Simpson, much of how we watch and understand television can be traced back to the 16-month span of the broadcast phenomenon which started with a double homicide. Changes in our television viewing habits, in our reporting styles, our pop culture, our perspectives on race and its galvanizing effect for society to change by writing laws against domestic violence have all be spurred by the sensation of the O.J. Simpson trial.