OJ Simpson: Made in America, Made by TV

One of the strangest quotes I remember associated with OJ Simpson came from broadcaster Al Michaels during the infamous highway chase in 1994. Michaels, a sports commentator now covering the escape from the law of one of America’s biggest celebrities, said he had talked to his friend Simpson on the phone earlier. “Al”, Michaels remembered him saying, “I need to get out of the media business.”

For a man who was about to be arrested and charged with the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman, it was an odd statement. But it was accurate. Simpson, during and after his professional football career, was a creature of the media business. With the highway chase and the bitter trial on live TV, he would essentially become the media business. Simpson, who died Wednesday at age 76, was one of the most viewed Americans in history.

What did people see when they watched OJ Simpson? A superstar, a murderer, a hero, a liar, a victim, an abuser, an insider, a pariah – often many of these at once. In his fame and infamy, he was an example of what celebrity could make of a person and a symbol of what the media could make of a country.

Simpson’s football career made him a television star in his own right, as he became the first NFL running back to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season, with the Buffalo Bills. But he found his way to mass-market stardom during commercial breaks approvals For RC tail, Chevrolet and, most famously, Herz rental car.

As the documentary “OJ: Made in America” ​​would later detail, race was a subtext to Simpson’s fame, even in his days as a pitchman. There was a sense of social relief in seeing white America, after the civil rights battles of the 1960s, embrace a charismatic black star. It was nice that the country appreciated OJ

But it also required complex negotiation, particularly in its most famous advertising campaign, for Hertz. There was anxiety about how white viewers would take the image of a powerful black man running through an airport: Would it be thrilling or threatening? The commercials made sure to include white viewers cheering “Go, OJ, go!” as if to validate his passport to mainstream stardom.

Acting roles followed in “Roots,” the “Naked Gun” films, HBO’s first sitcom “First and Ten.” His fictional and pitching roles would highlight his image of harmless charisma, an image that would have a surreal echo in his televised trial and the public’s reaction to it.

The murder case would demonstrate the power of electronic media to unite a country and tear it apart. The low-speed chase on the Southern California highway was one of those “where were you when” moments of monoculture, like an earthly perversion of the moon landing. It happened on a Friday night, interrupting Game 5 of the NBA Finals, mesmerizing tens of millions of viewers, none of them – at home or in the broadcast studios – knowing whether they were about to witness a death on live TV.

But in this classic mass-media global village moment, there were signs that the case was already becoming something more surreal and disjointed, a macabre carnival that would consume TV. People showed up on the highway holding signs and cheering, as if it were an NFL playoff game. TO prank callevidently a Howard Stern fan, he went on the air on ABC and greeted host Peter Jennings with a hearty “Baba Booey.”

The trial, once it began, was the greatest series on television, although even that seems like an understatement. What part of TV, in 1994 and 1995, it wasn’t the OJ Simpson trial? They were “The Tonight Show,” “Larry King Live” and Norm Macdonald’s “Weekend Update” on “Saturday Night Live.” It was the first topic of conversation in the morning and the last topic on cable news in the evening. He inspired “Seinfeld” episode. AND a fantasy sequence on “Roseanne” in which prosecutor Marcia Clark (Laurie Metcalf) crawls out of the TV to talk to Roseanne Conner (Roseanne Barr), who provides her with the missing murder weapon.

The trial was entirely televised. There were all kinds of TVs. It was a soap opera. It was a legal thriller. It was an interactive mystery before the age of murder podcasts. It was a social drama that exposed racial chasms and the flaws of the legal system. It was a dark comedy with buffoons, villains and comic relief figures.

That was a tragedy too, of course, and the viewers couldn’t agree on which part was a tragedy, and that was the tragedy too.

It was also a preview of upcoming attractions. It was the blueprint for 24-hour coverage of everything from wars to missing-persons cases to sex scandals. All-OJ-All-Time would seamlessly become all-Clinton-Lewinsky-All-Time, complete with legal commentators reprising their roles.

But while the Simpson case showed the media’s power to immerse us all in the same story, it also revealed how different communities can inhabit different realities. We may watch the same trial, with the same testimony, but not only agree on the correct verdict but on the stakes of the case.

It was open and shut or based on fraud. It was about domestic violence against women or racism. It was about how the rich and famous were above the law or how black defendants were below it. It was about the crimes of a person or the crimes of a system.

Like the domestic audience caught reacting to the verdict, some applauding and some complaining, we would become a split-screen nation. Eventually, with television news augmented by partisan news outlets and social media, people would come to many more stories – elections, wars, pandemics – wrapped up in their own ecosystems, listening to their own experts, believing their own facts.

As for the Simpson case, TV would eventually catch up to the more complicated reality. In 2016, both the documentary “Made in America” and the miniseries “The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story” laid out the case against Simpson as well as the racial-historical context of the trial. Taken together, they suggested that one could find Simpson guilty without believing the system was innocent.

Nuances and complexities are still possible. But they tend to work according to the slow and patient timetable of history. As far as daily news is concerned, however, we still live in the world created by the Simpson trial. This week, OJ Simpson finally left the media business. The rest of us are stuck with it.