TV's Temporary Reprieve From Simpson Overdose

Finally, the real show begins.

This was not the trial as it will ultimately evolve--with testimony drip-drip-dripping like a leaky water faucet before a jury--but rather the stunning opening arguments preceding the opening arguments. And as a bonus, if you wished, you could have exercised your veto and instead watched "The Young and the Restless" or "Regis & Kathie Lee."

Compelled by a homicidal urge to assassinate all competitors, TV stations take no prisoners during their bloody programming wars. Too often in news, this translates to coverage that's technology--or competition--driven. The emphasis is less on illumination than on image, the main purpose being to give the impression that you can do something better or faster than the next guy.

The inevitable result is an overlapping that leads to overkill, a copycat brand of journalese affirmed during much of TV's instinctive, zombiesque, all-eyes-right coverage of the Simpson-Goldman murder case.

You shouldn't expect competing stations to suddenly make peace and collude for the purpose of setting their agendas solely for the greatest public good, any more than you should expect competing newspapers to magnanimously ignore competitive pressures and do that.

So it was sort of an accident that everything worked to the benefit of viewers Wednesday and Thursday when only one Los Angeles station--KTLA-TV Channel 5--gave live coverage to a hearing at which prosecutors made shocking allegations about O. J. Simpson concerning a purported pattern of aggressive, even violent behavior, toward his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson. The celebrity and former professional football great is accused of murdering her and her friend, Ronald Lyle Goldman.

With the jury sequestered, the defense and prosecution vigorously argued their positions solely for Superior Court Judge Lance Ito, who had to decide the admissibility of these damaging statements regarding Simpson's alleged history of violence toward Nicole Brown Simpson prior to the June 13 murders. The defense has characterized them as irrelevant to this case.

If you wanted it, the hearing was available not only on Channel 5 but also on cable, via CNN and Court TV. If you wanted to pass, the usual options prevailed, except on Channel 5.

It was a sane way to go. Absent was the spectacle--so familiar at various stages of the prelims of this case--of six or seven stations airing identical pictures of court proceedings that frequently were so aridly technical and musty that you had to brush the cobwebs from your lids.

Yet it's possible to be of two minds about this. How ironic, given TV's earlier tonnage of en-masse live coverage of the minutiae of DNA and other alleged evidence in this case, that only one Los Angeles station should decide to beam live pictures of this most critical aspect of the proceedings.

Compounding the irony is the timing: The live coverage was vast when there were potential jurors out there to be swayed; the live coverage is narrow when a jury has been impaneled and then sequestered beyond the reach of TV and other media.

Perhaps the decision of most stations to skip this hearing was related to the marathon live coverage they had given earlier in the week to the storms that pounded and drenched Los Angeles and other sections of California. In any event, their absence was especially noteworthy in a week when Simpson court proceedings were more dramatic and compelling than ever. A week when accusations of domestic violence related from documents by Deputy Dist. Atty. Lydia Bodin--with Simpson seen responding at times as if bemused by the charges that he was a wife batterer--were enormously transfixing.

O. J. did that to Nicole?

Some of the statements read on Wednesday were withdrawn by Bodin on Thursday. Many, if not most, of these allegations of Simpson stalking or bullying or beating her appeared unsubstantiated, if not unprovable. Yet true or not, Bodin's haltingly delivered list of alleged abuses resonated with a bang, and her depiction of Simpson as a murderously jealous man hung heavily in the air.

What a show. It may be distasteful to describe a case this tragic in such a way, but a show is exactly what this week's trial telecasts have been.

One of another kind may be coming. It remains to be seen who, besides yeoman Court TV, will give live gavel-to-gavel coverage of the trial beyond the official opening arguments. But one competitor has just sailed its clown cap, bulb nose and fright wig into the ring.

Cable's E! Entertainment Television channel this week announced plans for gavel-to-gavel coverage featuring its own reporters, guest journalists, legal experts and, of course, gossip columnists.

Calling this story "our turf," Fran Shea, senior vice president of programming for E! Entertainment--the channel that carries Howard Stern, "Talk Soup" and "The Gossip Show"--promised viewers a "compelling mix of strong coverage and commentary by celebrity watchers" and, oh yes, those "gossip columnists." What, no psychics?

And speaking of gossip, elsewhere Thursday it was business as usual. The gleaming centerpiece of that evening's "A Current Affair" was a cousin of O. J. Simpson assuring America that the defendant did not kill his former wife and Goldman. Oh, really? Then stop the trial.

And on "Regis & Kathie Lee" Thursday morning, Regis Philbin displayed tabloid headlines that screeched out their own spin on this week's Simpson hearing. "It's getting very tough," Philbin said with a heavy sigh that indicated the depth of his feeling. "Now, about the Academy Awards."

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