THE YEAR OF LIVING O.J.;TRIAL COVERAGE MAIMS DAYTIME TV AND FORCES MEDIA BUYERS TO PLAY GUESSING GAME

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The consensus on Madison Avenue is that O.J. Simpson is guilty of murder, regardless of whether he is convicted of slaying ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman.

"One thing's for sure, O.J. Simpson is a murderer," opined Jon Mandel, senior VP-director of national broadcast at Grey Advertising, New York. "He killed daytime TV."

Mr. Mandel and his media buying peers have watched for the past year as TV coverage of the Simpson trial wreaked havoc on national TV audience shares, and conversely, the national TV advertising marketplace.

As Mr. Mandel noted, daytime TV has been particularly hard hit, with trial coverage on cable's Court TV, CNN and E! Entertainment Television cannibalizing about 20% of the Big 3's daytime TV rating points.

The spectacle also disrupted normal daytime viewing patterns, which has been especially devastating for the episodic story-telling genre of network soap operas. In turn, the migration of viewers to syndicated daytime TV talk shows has accelerated.

"It's a mess. The O.J. trial screwed up network daytime TV. It screwed up the syndication marketplace and it's indirectly screwed up other markets. It's impacted network news coverage and it's even impacted kids," said Mr. Mandel.

Pre-emptions on TV stations covering the trial, particularly West Coast stations that would normally have aired kids shows in their afternoon time slots, ate up excruciatingly sparse rating points in what is a continuously tight children's TV marketplace, he said.

Even Steve Brill, founder, CEO and editor in chief of Court TV, is looking forward to the day the trial ends.

"Life after O.J. will be significantly better for us," he said. "There has been such bad karma with this trial, including our own initial handling of it, that we will be better off when it is over."

Mr. Brill said the trial has been a huge drain on Court TV's resources, requiring a disproportionate share of its staff to be on assignment in Los Angeles. And even though Court TV's ratings have been boosted exponentially, the network has not directly increased its ad revenues, because Court TV does not sell specific trial coverage.

And while CNN and E! have been directly capitalizing on their gavel-to-gavel trial coverage, neither is factoring it into upfront sales for the 1995-96 TV season. The season begins about when most experts expect the trial to end.

"Our ratings estimates for '95-96 are based on historical tracks minus O.J. Simpson," said Larry Goodman, exec VP-news and operations at Turner Broadcasting Sales.

So instead of the quadrupling of CNN's normal ratings that Simpson trial coverage has generated, Mr. Goodman said CNN is estimating only a 20% to 25% increase over normal ratings due to a boost from presidential election year coverage.

"We will have some momentum based on the election coverage itself, even without O.J. The good thing about it is that it will span more dayparts than O.J. Simpson spans," he said.

Indeed, daytime has been prime time for Simpson TV coverage, explaining the indigestion experienced by big daytime TV buyers like Grey's Mr. Mandel.

"Thankfully, this thing will end some day," Mr. Mandel said. "The only questions are when it will end and what will be the long-term impact. Will all those viewers who left network daytime TV ever come back?"

That's been a key negotiating point between the Big 3 and desperate daytime media buyers.

The consensus, said Mr. Mandel, is that "about half" of the network daytime rating points will come back after the trial. While daytime TV has taken a hit from O.J. coverage, magazine covers have been dominated by the case in the 12 months since the bloody bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were found.

The O.J. saga has been such a consistent favorite for editors-from the juicy revelations featured by tabloids, to more serious looks at the trial from newsweeklies Time and Newsweek -that it's racked up 104.5 Cover Story points from Advertising Age, based on appearances on major magazine covers. So far the story hasn't scored less than 7 points each month, often toting nearly twice as many points as the nearest competitor.

Only two tragedies packed the power to knock the Simpson case off the No. 1 Cover Story spot. In November, the Susan Smith infanticide case in South Carolina stole the top spot, squeaking past O.J. by 1 point. And for May, the Oklahoma City bombing outscored the Simpson epic by 2.5 points (see story on Page 26).

Cable networks like Court TV and E!, and daytime TV talk shows that have benefited indirectly from the trial coverage, are factoring in sustained ratings increases.

"The buyers almost universally say, `Sure, your ratings are higher, but what about O.J?' Our intention is to sell our normal numbers and not our O.J. inflated numbers," said David Cassaro, senior VP-ad sales at E!

"If you throw O.J. into the mix, on average, our performance has quadrupled over last year. But we estimate that our non-O.J. dayparts are up 50% vs. a year ago, and that's what we have been telling advertisers," he said.

Overall, the post-O.J. period could be chilling for basic cable TV's ratings growth. To date, basic cable is enjoying one of its best seasons ever, growing at double-digit rates and cannibalizing the audience share of the broadcast networks.

If the trial concludes by September or October, as many experts predict, it isn't likely to hurt basic cable's growth pattern, because O.J. trial coverage didn't really get under way until the first quarter of 1995.

However, by the first quarter of 1996, basic cable could begin showing some erosion of its own.

On the other hand, the legal gods may provide some long-term justice for basic cable. At least for Court TV's full-time courtroom coverage, if not for the part-time legal channels like CNN and E!

In his original manifesto used to launch Court TV, Mr. Brill predicted there would be an average of three or four high-profile trials a year that would captivate public attention. This year looks like it might surpass that projection.

In addition to the culmination of the Simpson trial this fall, Court TV plans to cover the retrial of the Menendez brothers; the Susan Smith mental competency hearing; Philip Morris' libel suit against ABC over reports of "spiking" cigarettes with added nicotine; the Bosnian war crimes trial in the Netherlands; and possibly the Oklahoma City bombing case, to be heard in federal court.

For his part, Mr. Brill is most excited about the prospect of covering the Bosnian war crimes trials, the first such international tribunal since the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.

Grey's Mr. Mandel doesn't think the trial will play to big ratings in the U.S., simply because U.S. TV viewers aren't inclined to pay attention to global affairs that don't involve their own "back yard."

In any case, even without live courtroom coverage of the Oklahoma City case, Court TV will have its choice of high-profile trials to cover, and all of them have the ingredients Court TV's Mr. Brill said will generate huge public awareness and big ratings.

Undoubtedly, coverage of those trials will erode the ratings of the broadcast networks and, to some degree, CNN.

"We're simply doing to CNN what CNN does to the broadcast networks on major news events," said Mr. Brill. To show his channel's edge, he cites a Court TV analysis of Nielsen Media Research data that refutes CNN claims of being the dominant purveyor of live Simpson trial coverage.

The analysis, covering ratings from Jan. 23 to April 18 for the noon to 8 p.m. [ET] slot, found Court TV has a greater share of audience than CNN in homes that receive both channels and that the disparity is growing.

Given such momentum, Court TV is starting to make some headway with major advertisers, including package-goods giants like Procter & Gamble Co. and Clorox; both recently signed long-term advertising deals with the network.

But as with all its advertising agreements, Court TV only guarantees a ratings average and generally gives advertisers bonuses on the big event trials.

The strategy wasn't born out of good will, but necessity, since the nature of trial coverage-their duration and outcome-is unpredictable, said Gig Barton, Court TV senior VP-advertising sales.

As for media buyers, they are left with the nerve-wracking task of planning multimillion-dollar advertising budgets around such vagaries of law.

"They didn't teach me anything in media school about how long murder trials are supposed to run," said Grey's Mr. Mandel. "I mean, even the lawyers don't know when this trial will end and I'm just a media buyer." Julie A. Johnson contributed to this story.

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