People Power Forced Rupert Murdoch to Abandon O.J.

ANALYSIS: Consumers, Advertisers and Affiliates Just Say No to News Corp.

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- American consumers sent a very clear message last week to Rupert Murdoch and the rest of the media world: We have standards. They may be low and not terribly visible, but we do have them.
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Photo: Hoag Levins

Screaming out the general consensus about the planned O.J. Simpson confessional book and TV interviews, the front page of the New York Daily News -- rival to Rupert Murdoch's New York Post -- had a field day with the issue.

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Disgusted viewers
Just ask Frank Quitoni, president of Fox affiliate WWCP in Altoona, Pa., who was deluged with e-mails from viewers who were disgusted by the network's plans to air a sorta-kinda-not-really confession from O.J. Simpson. He, like other affiliates, decided to drop the interview and show in its place a program on domestic abuse called "When Violence Hits Home."

"If no one complained, it would be on the air," Mr. Quitoni said in an interview. "I have never gotten so many e-mails from viewers. At the end of the day, it's not a news story. It's a charade of a news story."

Widespread revulsion
The greatest moment in media morality that doesn't involve a Super Bowl nipple slip caused just about everyone to balk at "If I Did It," a book published by ReganBooks, an imprint of HarperCollins, which, like Fox, is owned by News Corp.

Sure, the interview was tent-pole material, a potentially perfect example of just how powerful cross-unit play and promotion could be for a media conglomerate. But rather than deliver those sought-after synergies across different News Corp. properties, all it succeeded in propping up was a thick mass of revulsion.

Rejected by Fox affiliates
Some of it came from two of Fox Broadcasting's own independent affiliates, which publicly opted out of airing the special. Wading through e-mail and phone complaints from viewers in the two days after the show was announced by Fox, Jay Zollar, general manager at WLUK-TV (Fox 11), Green Bay, Wis., contacted upper management at Lin TV, which owns four other Fox affiliates. It decided that day against airing the special. Pappas Telecasting, which owns four Fox affiliates, also opted out. "We've pre-empted programs before because we felt they were in violation of the FCC rules," said Pappas spokesman Mike Angelos. "This is the first time we've rejected a program because we thought it was not tasteful."

Fox also felt the heat from an advertising community that feared being anywhere near the program. Several media buyers said they told the network not to run their clients' spots in the special. Some said the Fox ad-sales team, perhaps aware of what advertisers would think, didn't even call to pitch the show, originally slated to run Nov. 27.

'They crossed the line'
"They did not contact us, but we told them don't even bother, we would not be interested," said Chris Allen, VP-associate director at GSD&M, which represents clients such as AT&T. "This was the right thing to do. I'm pleased to see they made a decision that was in the best interests of the American public. It was very inappropriate programming. They crossed the line."

Doing the right thing cost the media conglomerate almost $10 million dollars, according to Advertising Age calculations (stemming from the reported $3.5 million book advance, not to mention distribution costs for the book and production costs for TV program).

Credit Rupert's reality check to -- surprise! -- a sudden bubbling up of taste, morality and ethics from an American viewing public whose more typical failure to exhibit these very things has been crucial to the success of News Corp., a conglomerate responsible for such fare as New York Post headlines, "The World's Scariest Police Chases" and "When Animals Attack." It's a luscious irony, but more importantly, it's a warning to the scores of marketers and media companies now trying to stay relevant by giving over more and more control to consumers.

Fox show hosts revolt
What "If I Did It" demonstrates is that there are lines -- at least as of press time -- that content can't cross. And they're drawn just short of publishing a weird, speculative book by an all-but-convicted killer and then promoting it with TV interviews during November sweeps. So fierce was the backlash that two of Fox News Channel's own populist pillars, Bill O'Reilly and Shepard Smith, revolted, with the former calling it "simply indefensible and a low point in American culture."

It all goes to show that, even in a fragmenting media world and even in our rubbernecking culture, the mere potential to deliver a big audience isn't enough to whet marketers' appetites. After all, in that no-holds-barred content world dominated by YouTube and Mr. Murdoch's MySpace, advertisers are perhaps more aware than ever of awkward adjacencies and fearful of being near potentially damaging content.

Everyone assumes, of course, that Mr. Murdoch performed a cost-benefit analysis demonstrating that pulling back now was more prudent. He would likely argue that the black eye could have been darker had the content made its way into the world. For now at least, it won't, assuming, of course, that those already-taped interviews don't get leaked to YouTube.

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Brooke Capps contributed to this article.
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