A brewing rebellion by Fox affiliate television stations, coupled with resistance from the advertising world, prompted Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. on Monday to abandon its plan to publish a book and air a two-part TV interview with O.J. Simpson.
The interview and the book, both titled “If I Did It,” were announced last Tuesday and were widely viewed as a device to bolster Fox’s flagging ratings during the important November sweeps. The project had been promoted as revealing how the former football star would have killed his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Lyle Goldman.
The decision to cancel the Simpson venture followed nearly a week of outrage. The book was being published by ReganBooks, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, which, like the Fox network, is owned by News Corp.
News Corp. Chairman Murdoch’s repudiation of the book and television enterprise that originated within his own company was highly unusual, if not unprecedented.
“I and senior management agree with the American public that this was an ill-considered project,” he said in a news release Monday. “We are sorry for any pain this has caused the families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson.”
Simpson, acquitted of murder charges in the 1994 slayings, was found responsible for the killings in a subsequent civil trial. Simpson could not be reached for comment but told the Associated Press, “I would like nothing better than to straighten out some things that have been mischaracterized. But I think I’m legally muzzled at this point.”
News Corp. executives said the protests had reached a tipping point, with opposition coming from all quarters: the victims’ families, viewers, station affiliates, advertisers, booksellers and even executives within the company. By Monday morning, more than a dozen of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s roughly 200 affiliates across the country had rejected the program and News Corp. had received indications that more were likely to follow.
Visalia, Calif.-based Pappas Telecasting Cos., which owns stations in Fresno, Nebraska and Iowa, on Friday was among the first affiliates to refuse to air the Simpson program, calling it “tasteless.”
Mike Angelos, a company spokesman, said, “The program was of no beneficial interest to anyone, except O.J. Simpson, and we don’t want to benefit him.”
Larger station groups, such as Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. and Tribune Co., had been weighing whether to join the boycott. Tribune, which owns five Fox affiliates, including stations in Sacramento and Seattle, also publishes the Los Angeles Times.
“We told Fox executives that we had difficulty with the topic, and we asked to see a copy of the tape,” said John Reardon, president of Tribune Broadcasting. “But Fox made a decision, and we are pleased with the decision they made.”
Fox affiliate XETV Channel 6 in San Diego was also relieved by News Corp.'s decision. Richard Doutre Jones, the station’s vice president and general manager, had angrily blogged on the station’s website about the planned airing of the Simpson program, which was scheduled for Nov. 27 and 29. The comments area on Jones’ blog was overrun: “You have got to be the lowest, sickest group of newscasters in the entire world,” one viewer wrote.
Echoing many Fox affiliates, Jones said no advertisers were clamoring to be part of the Simpson show.
“Can you imagine any advertiser that would want to be associated with something like this? I mean, I don’t think a porno site would want to get involved,” said Jones, who planned to run public service announcements instead of commercials with the Simpson program.
Said Brad Adgate, research director for ad buyer Horizon Media, “It was incendiary.”
One News Corp. executive, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, said that scheduling the program represented “a severe underestimating of the American public” by company executives Peter Chernin and Peter Liguori .
As they have since the announcement of the Simpson project last week, Fox television executives declined to comment on the matter.
Fred Goldman, the father of Ron Goldman, spearheaded public protests by helping to organize an Internet-based boycott of the Simpson project and by appearing twice over the weekend on Larry King’s CNN show, where he lambasted Simpson, Fox television and book publisher Judith Regan for exploiting the murders for profit.
The decision meant that thousands of copies of the book stored in warehouses would soon be destroyed, according to a News Corp. spokesman, who declined to say how many had been printed. Standard industry practice dictates that the copies be pulped, booksellers be refunded any orders and the unidentified ghostwriter pay back the book advance. Simpson reportedly received $3.5 million for the project.
“There were some books that already had been sent to bookstores, and they are being recalled,” said Andrew Butcher, a News Corp. spokesman. “The books will be recycled.”
Also, Butcher said, he didn’t know how much Simpson had been compensated for the project, or whether Monday’s decision had any bearing on his compensation.
Los Angeles-area independent booksellers, many of whom had planned to donate any profits to women’s shelters and domestic-violence groups, were surprised and relieved by the reversal. No one interviewed could remember a time when a publisher had withdrawn a book from publication, particularly after such a massive promotional campaign.
ReganBooks and HarperCollins had solicited orders from booksellers for “If I Did It” without revealing the author or subject matter to them, and many booksellers felt duped.
Doug Dutton, owner of Dutton’s Brentwood Books, the bookstore closest to the murder scene, said, “I would hope that HarperCollins listened to the complaints of booksellers and individuals to stop what was at best an ill-conceived notion and at worst a revulsion.”
Amazon.com Inc. has pulled “If I Did It” from its listings and will cancel all pre-publication orders, said spokesman Craig Berman. Customers weren’t charged for ordering the book early. As of last weekend, the Simpson book ranked among the online bookstore’s top 25 bestsellers, but Berman declined to speculate on the number of advance orders to be canceled.
Said Jennifer Bigelow, executive director of the Southern California Booksellers Assn., which represents 112 independent booksellers, “The people have spoken. And Rupert Murdoch and his group have listened.... I think it’s very unprecedented. I’m shocked.”
Regan, who conducted the interview with Simpson, said she regarded it as his confession -- even though he never admitted to the killings. (Regan declined to comment Monday.)
“What it proves is that Judith Regan is not invulnerable,” said Publishers Weekly Deputy Editor Karen Holt. “She’d always had this reputation to do pretty much whatever she pleased.... For them to publicly go against her in this way shows that she may not have quite as much clout or at least have the absolute clout she was believed to have.”
News Corp.'s move was cheered among its many Simpson critics. But the cancellation did little to wipe clean a week that could be regarded only as a public relations nightmare. Even firebrand Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly blasted the Simpson program last week, labeling the product of a sister News Corp. division as a new low point for American culture.
Los Angeles attorney Daniel Petrocelli, who represented Fred Goldman in his civil suit against Simpson a decade ago, said, “I think it took courage, having made a bad decision, for News Corp. to realize the error of their ways and pull the plug. News Corp. deserves credit for that.”
Although the books may disappear, media observers said that forever suppressing a taped interview in the Internet age might be impossible. Considerable curiosity still surrounds one of the most sensational murders of the 20th century.
“We won’t be airing any of the footage; we won’t be releasing that,” Butcher said.
Cries of censorship did not materialize in the protest. CBS had been roundly criticized three years ago, for instance, for moving the controversial miniseries “The Reagans” to its corporate sibling Showtime.
“I am not a fan of censorship, but this was so hurtful and in such bad taste,” said Laurie Levenson, a Loyola University law professor who served as an analyst for CBS Evening News and other media organizations on the Simpson trials. “It was picking the scab off a wound. From the public point of view, everyone wants O.J. to go away.”
Times staff writers Henry Weinstein and Greg Krikorian contributed to this report.