Trial of Century, break of a lifetime

By Published on .

O.J. Simpson may be a free man in the eyes of the law, but he's a billion-dollar bonanza for those willing to exploit, with or without his permission, the notoriety of the football Hall of Famer who was cleared of two murder charges Oct. 3.

The saga--which began in June 1994, with the slayings of Mr. Simpson's ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, and ended earlier this week with Mr. Simpson's acquittal in the "Trial of the Century"--has spawned a burgeoning industry of media and merchandising deals.

Dealmakers and those who watch them say Simpson-related marketing could generate as much as $1 billion in gross media and merchandising sales, depending on how they're factored.

"When you have this kind of public awareness and preconditioning, the long-term cash-in has got to be enormous," said media industry consultant Jack Myers, president of Myers Communications, Parsippany, N.J. "There are just too many vested interests in keeping this industry alive."

"The trial proved there is a market" for further media exploitation, said Brian Murphy, editor of The Sports Marketing Letter, Westport, Conn. "This is a global obsession. We won't surrender it easily."

Mr. Simpson himself, having early sought patent protection for his name, could walk away with $18 million in his pocket--$6 million for a pay-per-view interview, $5 million for a book, $4 million from selling bits and pieces of his story to the media, and $3 million for licensing (trading cards, merchandise, etc.).

Mr. Simpson's representatives have approached various producers and distributors for a pay-per-view TV interview that could generate numbers previously attained only by heavyweight championship bouts. The event, to be an in-depth Q&A with Mr. Simpson conducted by a celebrity interviewer, would cost $50 per order with the expectation of generating a buy rate of 500,000 to 1 million households.

This still leaves plenty of booty for other players and purveyors in the O.J. Simpson drama. Consider:

--Gavel-to-gavel Simpson trial coverage boosted CNN's ratings and revenues by about 50%, contributing about $25 million in incremental revenues to the news channel. CNN's "Larry King Live" averaged close to a 5 rating all this week, which peaked at a 5.5 Oct. 4, the day after the verdict, from 10:45 p.m. to 11 p.m. (ET) when Mr. Simpson called in during an interview with defense attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr. CNN Video has released "The People vs. O.J. Simpson," a three-part video series retailing for $29.98 and a companion CD-ROM program.

--Court TV, which also provided gavel-to-gavel coverage, hasn't divulged its ratings or revenues impact from the trial, but its ratings are known to have increased multifold from the trial, and so--presumably--have its revenues. Courtroom Television Network, now looking ahead to other opportunities, said it will launch a 3-hour programming block called "Court TV Kids" on Saturdays starting in March.

--It may be too late for Court TV to touch on the Simpson trial in its kids programming, but on Oct. 8, Nickelodeon was scheduled to run a half-hour news program about the Simpson trial and all its possible ramifications as they pertain to children. The show, "Nick News Special Edition: After the Verdict," was to be hosted by journalist Linda Ellerbee and produced by her Lucky Duck Productions. A Nickelodeon poll of its kid viewers found that 75% were confused by the trial and 80% believe celebrities and wealthy defendants get preferential treatment from the courts.

--CBS executives confirmed they're developing a new dramatic series on legal forensics involving Simpson defense attorney Barry Scheck and defense DNA expert Peter Neufeld.

TV viewer interest of the actual verdict reading was intense. According to Nielsen Media Research, nearly 50% of U.S. TV households were tuned to their sets between 1 p.m. and 1:15 p.m. (ET) Oct. 3, compared with a daytime average of about 30%. The average minute rating for all cable and broadcast TV sources covering the verdict reading between 1 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. was a 42.9, reaching 51 million viewers.

But there likely was a record out-of-home viewing audience that went unmeasured by Nielsen from large groups of workers gathered around TV sets.

CompuServe, in partnership with CNN, set up special online areas to allow the service's nearly 3.6 million members worldwide to chat all day Oct. 3. The CompuServe Convention Center was hosted by CNN, which planned to poll users every half-hour.

As first reported in the Advertising Age Daily Fax a day after the verdict, Edward Billett Productions, Los Angeles, is considering Judge Lance Ito to star in a new version of its popular "People's Court" series, which ended a 12-year run in fall 1993. Judge Ito is said to have been offered $1 million, which would be a considerable raise over the $107,390 he earns as a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge. Judge Ito's office wouldn't return phone calls.

While it seems unlikely that he would opt to trade in his prestigious career as a judge for the tawdry pop culture world of a reality courtroom TV show, Judge Ito could easily cash in with a lucrative book deal and/or by signing on as a legal commentator on TV.

But he's not likely to do so while remaining a sitting judge. Among other things, Judge Ito is barred from discussing the details of the Simpson case until he finishes presiding over civil trials related to it.

Simpson trial prosecutor Marcia Clark signed with the William Morris Agency late in the week.

Newsweek, Time and U.S. News & World Report hit newsstands Oct. 9 with covers related to the verdict and expanded editorial wells inside. Time and Newsweek said they planned to boost their pressruns by 100,000 copies. It's not clear whether this treatment will help or hurt on the ad front.

"On balance, I think it will be a wash," said a Time spokesman. "The advertisers who might want to be in because of the extra sell-through will probably be offset by the advertisers who don't want to be associated with a topic that they regard as controversial."

On the day of the verdict, the Los Angeles Times came out with an "Extra" dealing the acquittal. It was the paper's first Extra since the 1986 Challenger space shuttle explosion, and probably not surprising since the trial was held in L.A. But nearly one-third of 664 newspaper editors surveyed by the Newspaper Association of America's Presstime magazine said their papers either produced special sections or Extras dealing with the verdict. Other major papers than ran Extras included The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and New York Post.

One enterprising institution that wasted no time was the University of Detroit Mercy, which within an hour of the verdict was faxing out an "O.J. Simpson Tip Sheet." The 10,000-student university offered news outlets reaction from its professors in law, sociology and other relevant fields including race relations. University Media Relations Director Gary D. Lichtman said the Simpson fax was a special "one-time" edition of tip sheets that the school puts out once or twice a week.

"We wanted to let the media know that we have some strong resources if they wanted to use them," Mr. Lichtman said. On the morning of the verdict, the university's professors spoke on the ABC News Radio network, National Public Radio and Voice of America.

The $1 billion potential for O.J. Simpson-related marketing can be projected from the past year's media coverage of the trial. If, for example, coverage of the trial accounted for just 0.4% of U.S. media content this past year, then the O.J. Simpson murder trial represented $1 billion out of the $250 billion Veronis, Suhler & Associates estimates advertisers and end-users will spend on U.S. media in 1995. Exactly how much U.S. media coverage has been devoted to the Simpson trial probably can't be pinpointed, but experts say that 0.4% factor isn't unreasonable.

"If you calculate all the O.J. coverage on an `if-purchased' basis, the number would be phenomenal," said Mark Weiner, director of research for Medialink Public Relations Research, New York. "The next biggest media events of the year that we could track were things like the launch of Microsoft's Windows 95 and the Disney/Cap Cities merger deal. Those were huge stories, but they lasted for about a week. The O.J. Simpson story sustained that level for 11 months. This has just dwarfed anything we've seen since the Vietnam War."

Contributing to this story: Keith J. Kelly, Barbara Bosch, Bradley Johnson and Electronic Media.

Copyright October 1995 Crain Communications Inc.

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