How the O.J. Debacle Restored a Bit of Faith in the Media

Sparing the Public From a Despicable Marketing Stunt

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Thank God we can still feel outrage.

That was my first thought on hearing that Rupert Murdoch had scuttled plans for what would've been
Photos: AP

Rupert Murdoch's apology for the 'ill-considered project' struck the right note, though, of course, the O.J. Simpson shows and book should never have been planned in the first place.

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the most despicable stunt in the history of marketing: a book and two sweeps-period TV specials in which O.J. Simpson was to detail how he would have almost decapitated the mother of his children and viciously stabbed another man to death had he in fact been the one who almost decapitated the mother of his children and viciously stabbed another man to death. Which, of course, he didn't. Unless he did. Or something.

Wacko excuse
Forget book publisher Judith Regan's wacko excuse that she was striking a blow in the name of battered women. This was business, pure and simple -- nothing more than a stunt designed to help News Corp. raise ratings during the November sweeps period. Local TV stations use those sweeps ratings to set ad rates, and they've come to rely on outrageous programming moves to bring in more eyeballs. That has led to some pretty awful TV over the years, but nothing as sick as the O.J. specials.

There was much interest in whether advertisers would run spots during the O.J. broadcasts -- CNN, CNBC and Fox News' Bill O'Reilly all asked me to speak on the subject last week -- but that was the wrong question. Advertisers are scared of their own shadows and would never willingly court controversy. They would've steered clear of these shows. But Fox wasn't looking to make money on the specials on a stand-alone basis. The payoff was going to come from the overall increase in November ratings and higher local ad rates that the show would've helped bring about.

Marketing atrocity
It was all about marketing. And it was atrocious.

Thankfully, technology is reducing the need for sweeps by making ratings information available throughout the year. But for as long as they exist, viewers, advertisers and station managers have a responsibility to draw the line, as a number of Fox affiliates did this time to force cancellation of the shows.

Murdoch's apology for the "ill-considered project" struck the right note, though of course the shows and book should never have been planned in the first place. He also owed every one of us an apology. Bill O'Reilly, on the right side of an issue for once, compared the O.J. project to the factors involved in the collapse of ancient Rome, noting, "American culture has hit its lowest point ever" and asking, "What kind of a country do we want?" (As for those who saw O'Reilly's anger as a manufactured part of the ratings stunt, sorry but even I can't be that cynical.)

Numb to media abuses
Sometimes I worry that we've become numb to the abuses piled on by media and entertainment companies every day in the name of profits. In his essay "On Bullshit," Harry G. Frankfurt argued that B.S. is far worse than lies since lies at least respect the existence of truth (by opposing it), whereas B.S. is indifferent to truth. The danger is that we become indifferent to B.S. and lose the ability to feel outrage.

I'd like to believe the adage that nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising. But there's evidence that people will allow a lot of awful stuff to pass as entertainment. They continue to tune in to network morning news shows that blatantly advance the agendas of sibling divisions. They continue to line up for films that insult their intelligence. They continue to watch reality shows that manufacture excitement out of meaningless moments.

But the uproar caused by this latest O.J. scandal restores my faith. It tells me that even if the line isn't always where I'd like it to be (a subjective coordinate, for sure), there is still a line, and a price to pay for crossing it.
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