ESPN has been rightly praised for its ambitious five-part documentary, “O.J. Simpson: Made In America.” Universally lauded by critics as an extraordinary entry in the network’s ambitious "30 for 30" series and perhaps one of the greatest documentaries of all time, sports-focused or otherwise, it drew a jaw-dropping 100% Metacritic rating.
Chronicling Simpson from his emergence as a football superstar through being acquitted for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman to ultimately ending up behind bars for a brutal robbery, “Made in America” is an example of great work that would never have existed if we didn’t live in a “TV Everywhere” universe.
When the documentary miniseries was announced, it was widely perceived as a response to the wild success of “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.” No doubt, the success of FX’s 10-part dramatization prompted ESPN to put the network's full promotional weight behind the documentary. Still, there were other factors at play.
“Made in America” owes a great deal to the ubiquitous, on-demand, over-the-top TV world that spawned it, a content industry where Netflix can create “Making a Murderer,” a substantive, addictive, watercooler-ready multipart documentary about an accused killer. Or likewise, HBO can have similar results with “Jinx,” and its you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up-Your-Honor tale of Robert Durst, the multimillionaire who was accused of murdering his wife, creating buzz and ratings (and convictions) never seen before for documentaries of substance. This kind of fare seldom drew an audience, let alone had much of a chance of being made,even a few years ago.
Look at how ESPN handled the release of “O.J. Simpson: Made in America.” After being screened at various film festivals and a brief theatrical run to put it in Academy Award contention, the two-hour first installment had its debut, not on ESPN, but on ABC—its Disney stablemate—last Saturday. When was the last time such a substantive documentary premiered on a broadcast network? Ratings were strong, bringing in 3.5 million viewers, and the numbers should climb significantly higher when those who recorded to watch later are tallied.
ESPN then reran the first episode, following it with the premiere of episode 2. Rating were strong again, with more than 5 million people tuning in, making it the highest-rated show on cable of the night. Part 3 will air on ESPN Thursday (June 16), followed by part 4 on Friday. The show will conclude with the final installment on ESPN on Saturday. Each of those nights “Made in America “ runs on ESPN, there will be a rerun of the preceding episode.
Keenly aware that we live in a binge universe, ESPN also quickly moved to make the entire series available online on WatchESPN last night, which no doubt will raise audience numbers by hundreds of thousands. Add all this up, and “O.J. Simpson: Made in America” is a sterling example of how the realities of our multiplatform world can produce rating gold for the business -- and platinum content for the audience.