O.J. Project Cancelled: Advertisers, Affiliates Have Final Say

by , , Nov 21, 2006, 8:50 AM
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An avalanche of negative reaction from Fox affiliates stations, potential advertisers and even Fox News on-air anchors Bill O'Reilly and Geraldo Rivera has forced the cancellation of the O.J. Simpson book and television special "If I Did It: Here's How It Happened." The move may push networks to air fewer shows with controversial topics during sweeps periods, say TV analysts.

"I and senior management agree with the American public that this was an ill-considered project," said Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corp., the owner of Fox, according to a company release. "We are sorry for any pain that this has caused the families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson."

Over the weekend, roughly a dozen Fox stations said they wouldn't air the two-hour Fox network show, which was to run over two consecutive nights, Nov. 27 and Nov. 29. Simpson was to have been interviewed by his publisher Judith Regan of ReganBooks, an imprint of HarperCollins, which is also owned by News Corp.

Don Perry, President-CEO of affiliate group Clear Channel Television, said Fox "listened to the public and the affiliates and made the right decision."

Clear Channel requested a copy of the special last week to help it decide whether to air it--and was told early Monday a decision would come from Fox later in the day. Then word came that the show was canceled.

Mike Angelos--a rep for Pappas Telecasting, which has four Fox affiliates, including Omaha, Neb., and Fresno, Calif.--said his company decided early on not to air the special, and credited Fox's reversal as a "victory for the people who spoke out. It demonstrates the power of the people whose voices were heard all the way to Hollywood and New York." He added: "We are not just business-persons, we are public trustees as well."

Also, TV industry executives predict that sweeps programming stunts, including controversial ones like the Simpson project, will become rarer as local TV stations rely less on handwritten diaries during sweeps periods to set ad rates and more on meter and local people meter technology, which give stations' access to ratings and demographic data year round.

Currently, 70% of U.S. TV stations still set advertising rates via the sweeps periods. "We will be getting away from the sweeps in five years," says Brad Adgate, senior vice president and corporate research director of Horizon Media. "Hopefully, you'll get rid of these types of shows."

But Art Slusark--a rep for Meredith Broadcasting, which operates Fox affiliates in Portland, Ore., and Las Vegas, Nev., two top 50 markets--says he does not believe that this incident will deter networks from outlandish sweeps stunts. "This thing was just so out there ... this was an isolated incident."

Typically, reticent advertisers and media agency executives were outspoken that they would not buy the TV special. Fox itself had no specific plans in selling ad time. Fox seemingly was relying on the controversial nature of the subject matter to bring interest and buzz. "Controversy is going to bring in viewers, and viewers bring in ratings," says Adgate. "There are literally thousands of possible [ad] buyers. But there is now more choice than ever for marketers to spend their dollars. They didn't need this."

"One client said he didn't want to be involved with a network that would sponsor something like this," says Larry Novenstern, executive vice president and director of national electronic media at Optimedia.

Clear Channel's Perry, however, did say the company "heard from a few advertisers who said, 'I do want to be in it.' It depends on the market. A few advertisers might have thought it would have done a big number."

Clear Channel runs the Fox stations in Albany, New York, Wichita, Kansas, and other markets.

The Simpson book describes the events surrounding the murder of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. The book was also to contain a fictional chapter on how Simpson might have committed the murders. Regan has said all this amounted to a "confession" on Simpson's part.

The outrage was tremendous against the project and virtually unanimous--with even Simpson's own lawyer recommending against it. Plus, two of News Corp.'s own Fox News on-air personalities, Bill O'Reilly and Geraldo Rivera, said they would oppose the project at every turn.

Executives viewed the O.J. Simpson book and TV special as obvious and cynical attempts to lift the Fox network out of its ratings doldrums.

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