How the O.J. Simpson Trial Birthed the TV Industry’s True Crime Obsession | Commentary

The Trial of the Century turned a tragic reality into public fodder, and we were never the same

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O.J. Simpson (Credit: Vince Bucci/AFP via Getty Images)

News of O.J. Simpson’s death on Thursday predictably inspired a lot of intense discourse. The footballer-turned-actor who was put on trial and found not guilty for the murder of his wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman never stopped being the subject of fascination and fury. It was called the trial of the century for a reason, after all.

Writing about Simpson following his passing from prostate cancer at the age of 76 was never going to be an easy endeavor for obituarists the world over. It’s near-impossible to talk about O.J. as a lone figure, separate from the social, political and cultural context that defined not only him but our worldwide reactions to what many still consider the most egregious court verdict of its time. Simpson may have stayed largely out of the spotlight following the nine years he spent behind bars for an armed robbery conviction, but the rest of us still live in the world that the O.J. case created — including the true crime boom that followed.

Over the course of the 11-month trial, the Simpson murder case became the biggest event in entertainment. Before he was even arrested, the now-infamous freeway chase, with Simpson and his white Ford Bronco tailed through Los Angeles by the police, was captured in agonizing detail by the media. NBC even cut between that and Game Five of the NBA championship. Once Judge Lance Ito, who presided over the trial itself, made the choice to allow cameras into the courtroom, a new reality TV show was born. This wasn’t unprecedented. In 1991, Court TV was founded and had already made a name for itself with wall-to-wall coverage of the Menéndez brothers’ murder trial. But it was O.J. that took them, and every other network, to the next level.

It’s easy to forget just how much the Simpson trial defined its generation. Much of it entered our cultural lexicon (“If it does not fit, you must acquit.”) It made stars and pariahs of dowdy lawyers doing their jobs. The journalists covering the case, camped out in a media area christened Camp O.J., became as well-known to the public as the defendant. Late night made farce of what had already been widely seen as a circus, from the Dancing Itos on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” to Norm Macdonald’s mercilessly scathing quips on Simpson’s supposed innocence on “SNL.” According to one paper, the Big Three networks gave more airtime to the case than both the Oklahoma City bombing and the Bosnian War.

Nobody was ready for how celebrity and the law clashed, and the former easily came out on top. Long before the proud villains of constructed reality series like the Bravo oeuvre became the entertainment norm, the public turned to the Simpson trial to find its heroes and villains. Dominick Dunne, the writer who covered the case for Vanity Fair, noted how the various participants often felt more like actors in search of a plotline than those involved with a murder trial. Many of them became reality TV stars, from Faye Resnick to Kate Kaelin to the children of Robert Kardashian. Even O.J., after his acquittal, tried his hand at a prank show. It didn’t take off.

Like the most bingeable of reality shows, the trial was addictive, easy to consume, and even easier to misunderstand. It forced lawyers to become actors, with some faring better than others. The fraught racism of the LAPD in a post-Rodney King world was a new narrative twist to exploit, while the domestic abuse faced by Nicole Brown proved less engrossing for audiences in need of a fix. When prosecutor Marcia Clark got a new haircut, it was treated with the cultural seriousness of Felicity chopping off her curly locks. Reality stopped being real through the gaze of the court camera, and in the end, the circus overshadowed the deaths of two people who had long lost their voices to the furor.

True crime as a genre existed before O.J. but its evolution into an entire cottage industry really kickstarted with his trial. It’s now the stuff of prestige, obsessed over in giddily voiced podcasts and harried TikToks — the trial itself was even adapted by Ryan Murphy into an Emmy-dominating FX series, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.”

Much like the Simpson trial, much of true crime TV is less concerned with truth and justice than views, as the “Tiger King” fad can attest. The treatment of horrific human abuses as entertainment speaks volumes to our morbidity and desire to make everything consumable for the masses, and it hasn’t gotten any better with time or self-awareness.

Nor has our hunger for another O.J.-esque trial been quashed. Johnny Depp’s legal team wrangled their way into a state where in-court cameras were allowed to ensure that his ex-wife Amber Heard faced the full wrath of an easily baited public in need of yet another reality TV villain, and plenty of people cheered along as a case of domestic abuse became just another juicy TV tidbit.

Many have analyzed the long-lasting impact of the Simpson case (with the excellent ESPN epic documentary “O.J.: Made in America” doing the best job), but there’s one disheartening reality that consistently comes to mind when we think of that not guilty verdict, the dancing Itos, the 24/7 coverage, and both Brown and Goldman’s families: we like a story more than we like people. 


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