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THE SIMPSON VERDICTS : Huge TV Audience Saw Trial Climax

TIMES TELEVISION EDITOR

It didn’t top the final episode of “MASH” or Gulf War coverage, but the verdicts in the O.J. Simpson murder trial drew a huge television audience of about 51 million people at home and untold millions more at work, Nielsen Media Research reported Wednesday.

With live coverage on four national broadcast networks and six national cable channels, the dramatic determination of Simpson’s fate accounted for a whopping 91% of all home TV watching between 10 a.m. and 10:15 a.m. Tuesday, the research firm said.

Other TV events have had larger ratings, but only Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon in 1969 and the aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 are believed to have so singularly captured the nation’s viewing attention with audience shares above 90%.

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The actual size of the audience that tuned in the reading of the not guilty verdicts is presumed to be far larger than what Nielsen reported, but no one knows for certain how much because the company only measures home viewing and not what people watch in offices, hotels, schools or other public places.

One gauge of the keen public appetite for the Simpson news was that television viewing at home Tuesday morning was 57% higher than usual, Nielsen said.

The verdict had a combined rating of 42.9, well below the record 60.2 that “MASH” garnered in 1983 but well above the 23.4 that TV’s top-rated series, “ER,” earned last week.

A rating is the percentage of all U.S. TV households that are tuned to a given program. Because the population has grown over the years, the number of homes represented by a rating point has increased, so that even though many shows have had higher ratings than the Simpson verdict, the actual number of homes it reached was larger than most Super Bowls.

By contrast, Nielsen said that television coverage of the first day of the Gulf War in 1991 registered a combined rating of 54.3, representing about 85.6 million viewers.

Locally, more than 95% of the people watching TV at home between 10 a.m. and 10:15 a.m. were tuned to coverage of the Simpson verdict. That represented about 2.8 million homes--double the number watching when the prosecution made its opening statement to the jury Jan. 24.


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