News

News Corp. cancels Simpson book, TV show

Phil Rosenthal
Chicago Tribune

On his way back to center stage, O.J. Simpson got the hook.

"If I Did It," his theoretical scenario for the infamous double murder of his ex-wife and a friend will not be published this month. Simpson's accompanying TV show has been canceled, too.

Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. abruptly reversed itself Monday and canceled its tandem print and broadcast efforts in response to widespread criticism that the idea was crass and exploitative.

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

Would-be author Simpson, a one-time star of sports, screen and Madison Avenue, was acquitted of the sensational 1994 crime in a televised trial watched and debated by millions. It was their passion to this day that News Corp. badly underestimated.

"If I Did It" was to hit stores Nov. 30, published by ReganBooks, an imprint of News Corp.-owned Harper Collins run by Judith Regan. Regan's interview with Simpson was to form the basis of two promotional one-hour specials "O.J. Simpson: If I Did It, Here's How It Happened," set to air Nov. 27 and 29 on News Corp.-owned Fox Broadcasting.

"Was it a pang of conscience or a branding decision? I think people were pretty much appalled that this guy was getting a platform and they weren't buying Judith Regan's argument that it was a confession," said Jeff Jarvis, media consultant and blogger behind buzzmachine.com. "Brands are about your trust and other people's respect for you, and obviously giving O.J. Simpson airtime and print space reduces the public's trust in you. ... If he had indeed confessed, is that news? Yes, but I'm guessing that would be on Fox News and not on Fox entertainment."

What was hyped as a quasi-confession from Simpson, albeit hypothetical, was an open invitation to revisit many of the hot-button issues the case sparked about race, fame, money and power, American justice, spousal abuse and media responsibility, to say nothing of whether Simpson was guilty or not. While Simpson was acquitted of criminal charges, a civil trial found him responsible for the deaths.

"My first reaction ... I thought it was unspeakable that O.J. Simpson had decided to do it," said Marc Watts, a Chicago agent who covered Simpson's criminal trial for CNN. "It reminded me of the sensationalism and overhyping of this trial back in 1995 and 1994. ... I thought, man, have we not moved from O.J. Simpson in 11 years? Are we still there? The courts have spoken. The 10-year documentaries have come and gone ... and O.J. is still front-page, first-block news."

While it is rare for a book to be withdrawn from release simply for its content, television networks sometimes have second thoughts in advance of projects. Faced with criticism its miniseries played politics, CBS banished its 2003 miniseries "The Reagans" to little-seen pay-cable Showtime.

It also is not unprecedented for crime figures to do books and interviews and usually not much fuss is made. But the nation had a different relationship with Simpson even before getting caught up in the ubiquitous coverage of his double murder trial like some reality melodrama.

Thanks to his days as a football star, his TV and movie work and his many ads, people felt more connected to him.

"This one's always going to be different because O.J. transcended all those different worlds," Watts said. "It was Hollywood. It was sports. It was a mixed marriage with a black and white couple. ... Simpson was history. I think Fox looked at this whole thing as a way to take another look at history. But it was really ill-conceived."

Fred Goldman, whose son was murdered, last week urged a boycott of Fox and any bookstores that carry the Simpson book. "You send a message that this kind of trash doesn't belong out in public," he told CBS.

The Borders bookstore chain had said it would sell the book but would donate any profits it made from its sales. And at least a dozen Fox affiliates said they wouldn't run the special, scheduled for two of the final three days of the November ratings period.

Pappas Telecasting Cos., which had said its Fox affiliates would not air the program, issued a statement welcoming the cancellation as "a victory for the people" because "this special would have benefited only O.J. Simpson, who deserves nothing but contempt."

It wasn't clear if any sponsors would have been willing to advertise on the show, and without advertising, its ratings would not be counted in the November sweeps. "But I presume they could have put on an ad for a Fox movie, if they needed to," Jarvis said.

When Regan availed herself of the News Corp.-owned New York Post for a nearly 2,000-word defense of the projects, she wrote: "I wanted him to confess his sins, to do penance and to amend his life. Amen."

Obviously that didn't fly.

"It was ratings, it was money ... it was stupid," Watts said. "Even as a reporter who sat in that court room everyday, I thought what is this? This is so stupid. Then I read Regan's account that this is O.J. Simpson's confession. It's just stupid."

A News Corp. spokesman declined comment beyond its announcement with Murdoch's statement, so it's not known what financial arrangements existed and what remains in place with the cancellation. News Corp. could bury the project, sell it or the rights could revert back to Simpson.

"Could he put it all up on a blog tomorrow? Yeah. Could he do the O.J. Simpson podcast tomorrow? Yeah. Stranger things have happened," said Jarvis, who thought "we had OD'ed on O.J."

"The sad thing about all this is forgotten," Watts said, "that two people were tragically murdered in this case, and by some accounts, depending on which court you believe, it is or is not really solved yet. ... He's playing with their emotions, but the bottom line is Fox did the right thing."

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