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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 last week.

The saga-which began in June 1994, with the slayings of Mr. Simpson's ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, and ended last 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 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 last 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 O.J. 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. CNN 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. Judge Ito is said to have been offered $1 million to do the show, 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.

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

Newsweek, Time and U.S. News & World Report hit newsstands today with covers related to the verdict and expanded editorial wells inside. Time and Newsweek said they planned to boost pressruns by 100,000 copies.

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 school offered news outlets reaction from its professors in law, sociology and other relevant areas including race relations. University Media Relations Director Gary D. Lichtman said the fax was a special "one-time" edition of tip sheets that the school puts out once or twice a week.

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

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