Verdict Is In: U.S. Viewers Love O.C. Trial

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Move over Luke and Laura. These days, daytime television watchers are glued to the real-life drama of Claire and Tony, the high society Orange County couple whose bitter palimony battle is being broadcast live from Santa Ana on Court TV.

That's the cable network that broadcasts trials from all over the country, and this week network officials say they have been been swamped with hundreds of calls from viewers hooked on Maglica vs. Maglica: women who are rooting for Claire to triumph over her greedy lover, men who grouse that the network's female commentators are unfairly biased in favor of Claire and insist that she is the greedy one.

For those just tuning in, Claire Maglica is suing Anthony Maglica for half of Mag Instrument Inc., a flashlight empire she estimates is worth $400 million. He is the company's president. She is the executive vice president.

The calls and letters to Court TV have not been tilted overwhelmingly in favor of either Claire or Anthony Maglica and aren't necessarily split along gender lines, said Debby Fry Wilson, vice president of public and governmental affairs at the network.

But emotions are running high.

Just listen.

"In the Maglica case, I resent the fact that your analysts all favor the plaintiff. In this case, it is very clear that Claire is an embezzling liar and Mr. Maglica is an honorable man," said one middle-aged man from the Southeastern United States, who called the network last week.

Sound harsh? Consider this counterpunch:

"Tony Maglica is making a career out of being a poor, old, misunderstood, befoggled, poor-English-speaking, heart-of-gold foreigner struggling to make good in America," one man said on April 18. "Everyone is dancing to his tune, and he should get an Academy Award." The Anaheim Hills couple have rubbed shoulders with U.S. presidents, sent generous contributions to the Republican Party and made headlines last year when they airlifted a blinded Bosnian boy to California for treatment.

And though the Maglicas lived together for more than 22 years and were known to many as husband and wife, they never married. An Orange County Superior Court jury began deliberating Wednesday in their palimony trial, which has been broadcast live for the past six weeks on Court TV. The 3-year-old, New York-based cable network is available to more than 14 million households nationwide. It is carried by some Los Angeles County cable companies, but is not available in Orange County unless you have a satellite dish.

If Claire Maglica prevails, legal experts say, the case could lead to the biggest palimony settlement ever, because there is so much money at stake.

Claire Maglica, 60, and Anthony, a 64-year-old Croatian immigrant, worked side by side for more than two decades, turning a small machine shop into the Ontario-based Mag Instrument Inc., maker of the popular Mag-Lite flashlight.

She says Anthony vowed to her repeatedly that they would always share everything; He says he made it perfectly clear the houses and business belonged only to him.

So who do viewers believe?

"Bless her if Claire can get even five dollars from this fellow who she lived with for 20 years," said one woman over 55 years old who declined to say where she was calling from. One young woman called in asking for Claire's address "so I can write her words of support."

But some sneered, complaining about gender bias.

"The guest commentators in the Maglica case are women and are favoring Claire Maglica. This is one-sided," one young man from the Northwest said. "The women need to be more fair."

Fry Wilson said that Court TV, also known as the Courtroom Television Network, keeps track of its daily calls from viewers, transcribing the comments and recording each caller's age range and where they are calling from. Viewer calls peaked at about a thousand a week during the Los Angeles murder trial of Lyle and Eric Menendez.

She said that all of the network's commentators are attorneys, and that if they issue opinions, they do so based on their professional expertise, not their emotions.

"The issues in this case really hit home," said Fry Wilson. "It's a trial that anyone can identify with, being that it's a domestic dispute, and unfortunately half our population will go through these kinds of issues--splitting the family assets, or separating business assets."

The allegiances of some viewers have shifted as the couple's attorneys have taken turns presenting their cases. While early responses favored Claire Maglica, Fry Wilson said that some viewers turned against her as Anthony Maglica's defense attorney presented the mogul's side and brought up allegations that Claire Maglica had forged American Express statements in order to get fatter reimbursements from the company.

"I believed Claire Maglica all the way. But after watching the forgery charge, I voted her down the tubes. I wouldn't give her a dime," one middle-age man said.

There also have been calls from armchair lawyers who offered tips for the attorneys representing the Maglicas.

So rapt is the audience that interruptions have provoked an immediate response.

"The Maglica trial is possibly the most important trial of this type ever tried, but we are being deprived by a sideshow like Kevorkian," one middle-age man griped on April 21, as the network switched back and forth between the Maglica trial and Jack Kevorkian's Detroit trial on assisted suicide.

Another viewer slipped outside for just a few minutes to dash to the post office and was enraged to find Jack on the tube-- not Tony and Claire--when he returned, Fry Wilson said.

"This is one of the best TV shows I've ever seen in a long time," said another female caller.

On Wednesday, too suddenly for some, Claire and Tony disappeared from the screen. The eight women and four men on the jury had slipped behind closed doors to decide the couple's fate, and viewers were forced to go cold turkey.

"Where's Maglica?" callers asked over and over. "What happened in the Maglica case?"

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