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The state of California vs. O.J. Simpson will unquestionably be the most expensive trial in the annals of American advertising.

The Big 3 networks alone stand to lose nearly $13 million per day if coverage pre-empts just half the nearly 1,300 30-second daytime commercials that NBC, ABC and CBS air each weekday.

"The only question is how many days are affected," said Jon Mandel, senior VP-director of national broadcasting, Grey Advertising, New York. "The effect is massively different depending on how long the coverage is. All we know is it ain't going to be pretty."

Jury selection begins today in the case of the former pro football star and ad spokesman accused of murdering his ex-wife and her friend last June. A verdict in the Los Angeles case isn't expected for months.

For the networks, stations and advertisers, the timing couldn't be worse. Commercial time is already tight due to the November elections and heavy fourth-quarter spending by retailers and holiday advertisers. The computer industry alone is spending $100 million during the quarter. Then there's the added crunch of the lack of a Major League Baseball playoff or World Series.

Much of the pre-emptions due to the Simpson trial may come during local or syndicated programming carried by local stations. Compounding the problem for East Coast stations is the trial's West Coast venue, which will push coverage into valuable afternoon fringe, early news and prime-access dayparts.

"That's where the stations make all their money," said Larry Miller, chairman of Corinthian Media. "If they have to pre-empt `Oprah Winfrey,' `Wheel of Fortune,' `Jeopardy!' and `Ricki Lake' for this, you're talking about a lot of local dollars."

"It's a very busy quarter with a lot of political ad dollars," said Michael Hugger, president of Katz American Television.

Stations must provide reasonable access to political advertisers, but Mr. Hugger said the definition of reasonable often is subjective.

The Big 3 are keeping coverage plans close to the vest.

All plan live coverage of opening and closing remarks, as well as key testimony by star witnesses, such as Mr. Simpson himself, should he take the stand.

Trial coverage will be a boon for some cable networks, with CNN and Court TV expected to reap significant revenue.

Both had surges in viewership and ad demand during pre-trial coverage and used that in selling the 1994-95 season upfront and fourth-quarter ad packages.

Media buyers said CNN has increased its ratings estimates and prices 50% for the fourth quarter. A typical CNN daytime ad unit fetches $2,800 to about $3,500, but now is commanding upwards of $5,000.

CNN is set for "virtual gavel-to-gavel" coverage, said Bob Furnad, exec VP-senior executive producer. It also plans a nightly half-hour prime-time special.

While CNN is selling O.J. ad packages, Court TV does not sell ad packages tied to specific trials. However, Court Senior VP-Ad Sales Gig Barton said anticipation of the trial contributed to a "succesful upfront" and is fueling demand for scatter units.

"We only run 10 units per hour in daytime. That's half what everyone else is running. A strong upfront pushes up demand for our remaining inventory. It has helped us firm our pricing."

Nonetheless, Court TV CEO-Editor in Chief Steven Brill said the channel is going out of its way not to exploit its O.J. coverage.

To emphasize that point, Court TV will break an in-house-produced consumer and trade print campaign by October. Created by Mr. Brill, it features a photo of O.J. Simpson sitting in the courtroom and the headline: Our 348th trial.

Last week, Court TV rejected an important new advertiser, the Florida Citrus Commission, for fear three new, upbeat spots for orange juice from Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, New York, would conflict with the trial coverage.

"This is the first time I've ever heard of a network canceling on a client when the ads are in good taste," said Gene Richmond, the commission's advertising director.

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