NEW YORK — O.J. TV was a national pastime.
The O.J. Simpson Show — with its centerpiece a former football great on trial for double homicide — commandeered the media, especially television, along with a spellbound audience for nearly 16 months.
It began as little more than a juicy crime story: the ex-wife of a celebrity and a male acquaintance slain outside her home on June 12, 1994.
Then things took a shocking turn: Simpson, initially seen as the grieving former husband, became the accused.
But O.J. TV erupted in full force late in the afternoon of June 17, with Simpson (charged with the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman) the focus of a slow-speed police chase in his white Ford Bronco, apparently considering suicide en route.
More than 90 million Americans watched, thunderstruck, as TV helicopters tracked this beyond-bizarre motorcade along the freeways of Los Angeles, then, after some 90 minutes, witnessed Simpson surrender in the driveway of his Brentwood home.
“You didn’t dare turn away,” says Greta Van Susteren, now a Fox News Channel host, who became a legal analyst for CNN’s trial coverage. “Everybody was watching it, live, wondering if O.J. was going to blow his brains out. That’s when the hook was set for everything that followed.”
What followed was labeled the Trial of the Century, with TV perfectly poised to give it the full treatment, serving as its primary dispatcher and enabler. Endowed with cameras in the courtroom, this was the first big TV trial. It was lurid, star-driven and racially charged, with elements of glitz, sex and domestic violence all wrapped in mystery and supercharged with who-will-win suspense.
And it had the perfect headliner.
“Here was a man who had transcended sports and even race, a guy who had achieved single-name status,” says Jack Ford, now CBS News Legal Analyst, who covered the trial for NBC News.