For Three Decades, TV And O.J. Simpson Were Intertwined

For better or worse, O.J. Simpson and TV were joined at the hip for roughly 30 years.

The O.J. era stretched from his days as the nation’s premiere college football star (USC, 1967-1968) to the mid-1990s, when his televised criminal and civil trials stemming from the murder of his wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman riveted the nation for three years.

The drama’s peak TV moment came at midday on Tuesday, October 3, 1995, when an estimated 150 million Americans dropped what they were doing for about a half hour to witness the live, televised verdict in Simpson’s murder trial.

A guilty verdict, which was more widely expected than an acquittal, would have been a big enough story. 



But when the acquittal was read, the story blew up to rank as one of the most sensational ever experienced by anyone who was watching that day.

This memory and a couple of others from the three-decade O.J. Simpson era came to mind on Thursday when the news broke that Simpson had died at age 76. 

Here are a couple of them, some TV-related, some not: 

Game 5 of the NBA Finals, Knicks vs. Rockets, on June 19, 1994, five days after the murders, when NBC had to choose between continuing its coverage of the game or going to live coverage of the infamous white Ford Bronco police chase on an L.A. freeway as Simpson apparently tried to escape to Mexico.

The network’s solution: A split screen -- the game on one side, and news anchor Tom Brokaw on the other giving his own play-by-play of the police chase.

Jay Leno’s Dancing Itos: No other late-night comedy bit in the era of the Simpson trial better symbolized the way the trial had burrowed its way into the American pop-culture zeitgeist than the “Dancing Itos.”

This was a troupe of manic dancers in judicial robes named for Judge Lance Ito, who presided over the televised trial. During the trial, it seemed like Leno had them on almost every night.

Although it was utterly tasteless in the context of a murder trial, they were nevertheless enormously popular.

The wisdom of editors: Near the end of a morning editorial meeting I attended on June 12 or 13, 1994, an editor mentioned dully that he had just heard about some news story out of L.A. about O.J. Simpson’s wife possibly being murdered.

He promised that someone would check it out by the afternoon meeting. At that meeting, he was heard to say, “Well, this’ll keep us going for six months!” Actually, the saga lasted three years.

O.J. Simpson a murder suspect? No way!: Those who were not alive in the O.J. Simpson era might not be aware of what a famous, ubiquitous figure this guy was.

He was one of those celebrities who came across as just so damn likable. I remember my late mother saying to me when the news broke, something like “he always seemed so nice!”

In a way, he was like Bill Cosby. Both were personalities with a high Q Scores who everybody liked. 

They were TV A-listers -- frequent fixtures on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” guests on TV shows (or in Cosby’s case, the star of his own TV shows), and widely sought after for TV commercials.

Cosby did work for Ford, Del Monte, Coca-Cola, Kodak, E.F. Hutton and a few others, but he was known best for Jell-O, especially Pudding Pops.

Simpson was best known for his Hertz commercials in which he was seen running through an airport while a spectator cheerfully yelled “Go, O.J. go!”

When we first began to absorb the news that Simpson might have stabbed two people to death in a fit of rage, we couldn’t believe it. 

This guy? O.J.? The guy from the “Naked Gun” movies and “Roots”? Nah, it can’t be. 

The art of the running back: On the football field, the man was beautiful to watch. He turned taking a handoff and then running with a football into an art form.

In his era, he was one of the most electrifying athletes in any televised professional sport. I can still hear Howard Cosell on “Monday Night Football” calling him simply “the Juice” in that distinctive, unforgettable voice he had.

And now, the incredible, heroic and tragic story of O.J. Simpson is over. I can’t quite put into words what it felt like on Thursday to hear the news that he died. 

Well, maybe the Grateful Dead can provide the words: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” That about sums it up.

1 comment about "For Three Decades, TV And O.J. Simpson Were Intertwined".
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  1. Ben B from Retired, April 13, 2024 at 12:06 a.m.

    I was a teenager when the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson & Ron Goldman happen. I wasn't born when OJ was playing for USC, NFL Bills & 49ERS, known who OJ was from the Hertz ads, as an actor and being in the studio for NFL coverage for NBC. I watched that Bronco chase like most of America I flipped it to CBS, ABC, a little bit of NBC/NBA Finals CNN as well,  Fox at the time didn't have news for local Fox stations as WXMI Fox17 just aired syndication programming a repeat of Arsenio Hall Show that ended month before in May.

    The verdict I was offsite from high school for work experience since I was in special ED which I didn't get paid as I wasn't old enough to work in the work shop I worked with the plants and also planting them as well. I know you don't care everyone was watching for the verdict to be read if OJ would be found guilty or not guilty, a the time I thought OJ was not guilty a year after the verdict I thought he was guilty of murder. This is my opinion I think OJ had CTE not making it an excuse for the killings of Nicole Brown Simpson & Ron Goldman wrong place at the wrong time.

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