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TVs Everywhere Tune to Trial’s Final Drama

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

They pumped up the volume in beauty salons and muffler shops and restaurants on Tuesday. The endless song that had become the background music of America’s sociological dance is reaching a crescendo. The final stanza is under way, the big ending is at hand. The television stations that had long ago retreated from the stuffiness of DNA and droning coroners are back. Everywhere you turn on the dial, The Trial is once again in full resplendence.

Julian Morlini has watched it at work. He’s watched it at home. So, of course, on this rainy morning the TV that sits in a corner overlooking the small Tramezzino II restaurant in Santa Monica that Morlini manages was booming the closing arguments of Marcia Clark. It was so loud it obliterated any other conversation. But just in case Morlini felt the need to turn the sound off and play music, he had the closed-caption version on.

“After watching it for so long,” said the 26-year-old Morlini, “I wouldn’t miss how it ends.”

When Judge Lance A. Ito temporarily cut off television during the afternoon, Inglewood nail salon owner Nedra Robinson took it very personally.

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“I think, why so late in the day?” she said. “You get us watching, then we have to sit here and watch these news commentators who don’t say anything and we can’t watch what we normally would watch. I felt controlled.”

Like some renegade soap opera that meandered into one too many plot twists, the Simpson trial is coming to a close, its die-hard fans chugging along. If you were with this through riveting moments and soporific testimony, you’re definitely with it now. And if you turned it off a long time ago--or only watched it intermittently--television stations are betting you’re going to watch again.

Some have had the television on as a backdrop to their lives since the trial started. At a Midas Muffler Shop on Sepulveda Boulevard, owner Phil Robman glanced expressionlessly at the fuzzy picture on the television screen in his office.

“It’s been on for a year and a half,” he said wearily. “I don’t pay attention unless it’s really interesting. I heard Marcia talk a little bit.”

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Many stations resumed live continuous coverage Tuesday, hoping for a piece of the ratings bonanza that KTLA Channel 5 has enjoyed as the only local station with gavel-to-gavel coverage for the past several months.

Ebbs and flows in viewership followed the drama of the trial. The highest points for KTLA came in February and March, when the prosecution was presenting its high-profile witnesses such as Los Angeles Police Detective Mark Fuhrman and guest house tenant Brian (Kato) Kaelin, and in July, when the defense was putting relatives of Simpson on the stand. KTLA received its highest rating on July 10, when Simpson’s relatives first started to take the stand. The station received a 9.9 rating, which translates into 1.4 million viewers.

The lowest ratings--less than half of the peak--came in July, when the DNA evidence was being presented. In the first week of July, KTLA averaged a 4.3 rating, which translates into about 619,000 viewers.

CNN also reflected the interest in the trial. Normally, CNN averages a 0.7 rating in the afternoon, or about 470,000 viewers, according to Howard Polskin, CNN vice president of public relations. But during the network’s almost continuous coverage of the Simpson trial, the network averaged a 3.4 rating, or 2.2 million viewers. “That shows how huge a story this was, that the viewership increases fivefold,” Polskin said.

The Los Angeles coffee shop Pann’s has its own trial barometer--when the trial is riveting, its business is down. And conversely, “When the same person is on the stand three or four days and it starts to drag, we get busy again,” said manager Greg Yount. “We have to follow the trial because it affects business.”

So Yount was not just aware of the fact that closing arguments were going on Tuesday, he knew the timetable for the day. “I understand they have a break from 12 to 1:30,” he said shortly after noon Tuesday. “We’re anticipating a crowd.”

At Nedra Robinson’s NAD Airbrush Designs, where the trial is often the salon’s choice for the television set, the first day of closing arguments was a day to watch. But there was still one house rule: “We never watch it when ‘The Young and the Restless’ is on,” said Robinson. In fact, when she and her staff discovered the soap opera was indeed being broadcast--during the trial’s lunch break--they uttered a whoop of delight that bested any reaction that morning to the closing arguments.

But then, Robinson is not a big fan of Marcia Clark.

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“She kept saying, ‘Yes, we have a police officer [Fuhrman] who’s no good . . . yes, we have a coroner who messes up. . . .’ I couldn’t get with that,” Robinson said.

At AAA Pawn & Jewelry in Culver City, only one of the three people working at the store admitted he was tracking the closing arguments that played on the giant television screen behind the glass wall of the store.

“I just want to watch what happens with O.J.,” explained the trial fan, Michael Mahone, as he bought lunch at his usual place, the Sorrento Italian Market up the street from the pawnshop. “I want to watch O.J. get freed.”

Owner Ursula Vera stared at him stunned from behind the counter.

“Why you looking at me?” Mahone asked with a smile.

“I think you’re a nice person, but I don’t think O.J. should get freed,” Vera said soberly.

“Oh, man, my bill’s not going to go up, is it?” Mahone chuckled.


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