CNN IS RIDING HIGH WITH SIMPSON TRIAL

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After paying its dues on the burning battlefields of Kuwait, CNN is cashing in from a courtroom in Los Angeles.

But the cable news operation will still have to cross an ethical minefield before it's done.

CNN's ratings are airborne as it covers the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Unlike past events, such as the Persian Gulf War, CNN was able to plan for and sell against a ratings surge from the trial.

"What CNN is doing is utilizing the experience they had with the Persian Gulf War and other crises they had, and they're pricing their network accordingly and it's a smart move," said Steve Auerbach, president of media buying specialist Auerbach & Co., New Paltz, N.Y.

So far, CNN has boosted fourth-and first-quarter ratings projections by 50% and ad rates proportionately. Indeed, Advertising Age has learned that CNN has already booked $12 million to $15 million in incremental revenues solely from Simpson trial coverage. Expectations are that number could climb substantially depending on how long the trial drags on.

That's the good news. The dilemma for CNN, though, is at what point does the network begin to look like a profiteer on what is, after all, a story about a grisly double murder? "News" may have put the first N in CNN, but the question remains: How far can it go?

For example, CNN has the opportunity to set what would likely be a cable ad price record, an anticipated $100,000-plus for a 30-second spot following a verdict.

Previously, the only cable spots to approach that price have been prime-time Sunday NFL games on ESPN and TNT.

"No packages are on the street for when the jury reaches a verdict, but when the time comes, we will entertain it," a CNN spokesman said.

CNN's ratings performance to date for its virtually gavel-to-gavel live coverage suggests such a spot could have significant value.

So far, the broadcast networks have aired a moderate schedule of live Simpson trial coverage-about 3 hours daily during the first week and only about 11/2 hours the second week-and their ratings have generally been about the same or slightly less than their regular daytime programming.

CNN, however, is up nearly eightfold. Its average during the first two weeks of coverage was a 5.5 Nielsen rating, compared with its normal average of 0.7.

CNN's coverage also appears to be building. During the first week of the trial, it averaged a 5.1 rating. In the second week, it averaged a 5.6. And through Feb. 8, CNN averaged a 6.6 rating.

While CNN has sold specific Simpson trial ad packages, the broadcast networks have not. Nor, ironically, has Court TV. In fact, the Big 3 and Court TV actually run fewer units during the trial coverage.

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