RUSHING BACK TO SEE COURT TV

Night after night, month after month, millions of Americans sit spellbound at home, transfixed by Court TV, a new cultural obsession that blurs the distinctions between entertainment and reality

"HOW TO tell if you are watching too much of the OJ Simpson trial?" the American supermarket tabloid, the Star, asks its readers. And well it might. Court TV, America's new round-the-clock media obsession, which broadcasts the "Trial of the Century" all day every day, has been doing what the tabloids do, only better: pulp faction, made gritty, intelligent and compelling with the help of awkward footage and erratic sound quality from the cameras in the courtroom.

"Maybe you should turn it off," the Star suggests. At the very least, consider the following:

1) "When you're watching, do you frequently become so enraged at one of the defence or prosecuting attorneys - or Judge Lance Ito - that you berate someone who walks into the room?"

2) "Do you find yourself leaving tasks undone in order to watch the trial?" (Does postponing urination count?)

3) "Would you be perfectly happy if you never heard the name OJ Simpson again?"

No way! Not until The Verdict.

Since it began with the "low-speed" police chase down the LA freeway that ended up with several national news stations broadcasting "live" footage of a parked car, the OJ case has been exceptional. Marshall McLuhan, the media guru, said it 30 years ago: the medium is the message, not the message itself.

"We become what we behold," he said, in Understanding Media, in 1964, one year after the first great television communion, the Kennedy funeral. "We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us." With OJ, this has happened definitively, and there is no chance of turning back.

Since 1991, Court TV has won the compulsive attention of Americans by obscuring the distinctions between fact and fiction, distinctions which were never so clearly defined in the first place. Like a lone vigilante, their camera goes bravely into the courtroom to feed other networks. Teams of legal experts give a play-by-play analysis that turns courtroom tactics into an endless Super Bowl in which we are all quarter-backs. Without control of the stage, the sound effects or the visuals, but in full knowledge of First Amendment rights, it pumps out the raw footage of the trials of the century with all their chaos, blood and guts.

Recent Court TV spectacles have included the serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer; the Menendez brothers, the rich boys who murdered their parents; William Kennedy Smith, who was accused of rape; the trial of the police who were caught brutally beating Rodney King on video; the Lorena and John Bobbitt case, in which a wife sliced off her husband's penis (which was then sewn back on); and, last but not least, Colin Ferguson - the pioneer of a new absurdist form of court-room drama that Ionesco could not have bettered. A schizophrenic commuter-train gunman, he was allowed to interrogate, as his own defence lawyer, the people he shot. (Q: "Did you see who shot you?" A: "Yes". Q: "And who was that?" A: "It was you.")

And then came OJ Simpson, number 32, the football Hall of Famer, the "Juice", the running back who rose from the ghetto to super-celebrity through sheer force of character and physical skill. This case is Americana unlimited: it has race, sex, domestic violence, a fairytale inter-racial romance, brutal betrayal from a man once entrusted with product endorsement. It has white pets, white Ferraris, and blood-soaked Mexican tiles beneath potted palms. It can be anything you wish. Can a black man get a fair trial? Will celebrity always buy justice? Can celebrity destroy justice by trying the man in the press? Can wife-battering ever come out from under a husband's reputation?

All over the country, the folks at home are taking advice, on television and on the radio, about how to handle the emotional repercussions of too much exposure to the OJ Simpson trial - the brutality of the murders, the televised terror of Nicole Simpson's 911 calls, spelled out on the television screen in subtitled conversation with the operator, while OJ (not our OJ!) raged in the background.

Child psychologists join the panels of experts to discuss the effect the trial could have on the young and impressionable, who might see in it a risk of abandonment, of one parent killing the other the next time they fight.

What is a mother to do?

"Reassure them."

Since the trial began on 19 September, Court TV and CNN (which transmits it live every day), have clobbered network news in the ratings. Now that OJ's on all day - re-capped at night, and live in the afternoon - viewers have been lured away from both evening news and daytime soaps; the real one is so much better. If the viewer defection continues, ABC, NBC and CBS could lose as much as $1m a week before a verdict is reached, perhaps in June.

The real event of the OJ trial is the way it spawns more and more media "products": it's a cultural industry of increasingly ridiculous proportions. You can buy hotel furniture on which OJ allegedly slept on the night of the murders. You can get the OJ CD-ROM, the multi-media interactive companion to the court trial from CNN, plus best-selling books and audio tapes. Even in infamy, OJ is a walking, talking product endorsement: promoting Ben & Jerry's ice-cream, and Ford Broncos, and other brand-name products as they enter the court transcript, over and over again, in testimony. He is a Frankenstein of the consumer society, a deity or a devil of the television age. All the newspaper editorials about fallen heroes and American tragedies cannot match, for its uncanny grip, its search and seizure of the situation, the live television announcement that: "OJ is demanding to be taken to his mother."

The feedback from this "living-room law" has been like the roar from a Roman amphitheatre. It's at once pagan and ritualistic. A social simulcast that defies linear thinking - as McLuhan predicted. Everybody wants to cast their vote in this virtual voting box: a thumbs up or down for OJ, for defence lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran, or even Judge Ito - whose face is hawked on badges outside the courtroom.

But mass consumption has brought some unprecedented problems. How should evidence be presented in court, when it has already been "discovered" in the press, as in the case of the recordings of calls for help made by Nicole Brown to the police? What do you do when family members "testify" on TV, on Larry King Live, before they take the stand? How do you select an impartial jury when they've already heard it all? How do you keep lawyers from holding press conferences - mini trials - on the courthouse steps?

Lawyers of distinction, such as Alan Dershowitz, author of The Abuse Excuse, the book (and popular catchphrase) about the sympathy cameras generated for the sexually abused Menendez brothers, attack Court TV for fuelling interest in the salacious. It makes lawyers and judges and limo drivers famous overnight. It makes the law into part of the medium to the point where Robert Shapiro's tips on handling the press, and putting on the right spin, have become part of the law school curriculum. Others praise it for making Americans feel as though they are reconnecting to the Constitution, this time by E-mail (18,000 lawyers subscribe to Court TV's on-line information exchange, Counsel Connect).

Steven Brill, Court TV's founder and a former Esquire journalist, says he wanted to "substitute real law for LA Law," and in the process create an entertaining educational tool and watchdog for democracy. His aim was quickly achieved. Forty-seven states now permit some kind of television coverage of their proceedings. Entertainment and the judiciary soon coupled, and are producing media progeny. Days after the low-speed Bronco chase, three sitcoms made fun of it. This autumn, on ABC, Steve Bochco, the producer of LA Law and NYPD Blue, brings the courtroom drama even closer to reality with Murder One, a series that will spend its 22 weeks following a single fictional criminal case, much like Court TV. A recent episode of Law & Order, another courtroom drama series, threatened to rewrite sexual harassment law when the scriptwriters turned harassment into a felony, which has not happened - yet - in life.

Court TV does make some distinctions between litigation and the profits of showbiz. It does not sell advertising against its highest rating programming: live testimony. Also, it won't wrap ad packages around specific trial coverage. Ratings are kept confidential. (CNN has denied rumours that it is selling an ad package that includes the first commercial break to follow a Simpson verdict.)

Entertainment, propelled by technology, has saturated its traditional confines and seeped into regions that used to seem sacrosanct. But the difference between the real and the unreal has all but blurred in the virtual reality of telecommunications. There is the meat, the hacker's term for the body, and then there is the mind.

When OJ's Ford Bronco, driven by his old friend AC, fled the scene of his arrest for the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman (even while he was allegedly holding a gun to his own head), the crowd shouted him on. "Go, OJ, Go!" and "Let the Juice Loose!" It was as if some fictional character - say Mickey Mouse - had hopped out of fairyland on to the highway.

"The crowd is in denial," the press rationalised, using those archaic tools of reason, linear thinking and words.

The great seduction of Court TV is its relative crudeness. As an audio- visual experience, it is the equivalent of a garage band. The offscreen coughs and echoes, the long silences, the static camera and uncomfortable viewing angle gives the mind space in a way that the slick boob-tube of American television has long since disallowed. It's a little like cricket or baseball or tennis. "Sustained" and "Overruled" begin to sound like "Deuce", or "Love-Forty". You can enter Court TV like a novel. It gives you room to move around.

I don't think this is what the founding fathers had in mind when they said: "government for the people, and by the people", but here goes: I think AC did it. !

ESSENTIAL VOCABULARY

CATCH-PHRASES (cf "the grassy knoll"):

The low-speed car chase

The bloody glove

The events (aka "The events of the night of 12 June and the early morning of 13 June")

The trail of blood

The pool of blood

The blue-knit cap

The plaintive wail (made by Nicole's Akita - see right)

LEGAL TERMS

"Going to side bar": discussion among counsel that is conducted out of earshot of the jurors and the camera. An opportunity for CNN to cut to legal analysts who examine participants' strategies, outfits, etc, rather as sportscasters examine plays at half-time.

"On direct": on direct examination.

"On cross": on cross examination.

"The kill switch": the switch Judge Ito hits to keep gory photos of the crime scene off television screens.

POLICE TERMS

"Residence": house

"Premises": house

"Location": house. (NB: never "house")

"Observed": saw (as in "I observed blood on the vehicle"; "I observed the dog lying in the driveway") (NB: never "saw")

"Vehicle": car (NB: never "car")

ESSENTIAL CHARACTERS

Judge Lance Ito, who has denied all media attention for the jury but not for himself.

Faye Resnick: recovering drug-user and friend of Nicole whose book, full of details of Nicole's sex life, has sold 1 million copies.

(Brian) Kato Kaelin: the aging surfer boy "caretaker" who lived in OJ's guesthouse.

Rosa Lopez: OJ's neighbour's maid, who supports OJ's alibi that he was home swinging a golf-club on the night of the events.

Mr Park: OJ's limo-driver, who was kept waiting a very long time outside OJ's house on the night of the murders.

AC: Al Cowlings, OJ's lifelong friend, the one who drove the getaway car ("the Bronco") in the "low-speed" car chase.

Detective Mark Furhmand: the detective who found "the bloody glove" at OJ's estate.

The Akita: Nicole's dog, found by neighbours wandering and wailing its famous "plaintive wail" some time after 10.15pm.

Marcia Clark: the attorney for the prosecution. Softened her image, after professional training, to compete with Johnnie Cochran.

Johnnie L Cochran: Mr Charisma, the lawyer who heads the so-called "Dream Team" defending OJ.

Denise Brown: Recovering alcoholic sister of Nicole whose sobs on the witness stand were called crocodile tears by the defence.

ESSENTIAL PRODUCTS

OFFICIAL ENDORSEMENTS

(Products OJ used to endorse before his arrest): Hertz rental cars; TreeSweet Products Company's orange juice; Aome Boot Company's Dingo boots; Hyde Athletic Industries' Spot-Bilt athletic shoes; General Motors' Chevrolet; Foster Grant sunglasses; Schick shavers; Royal Crown Cola; Wilson Sporting Goods.

UNOFFICIAL ENDORSEMENTS

(Products and businesses which have benefited from OJ's appearances on Court TV): the Ford Bronco (as used in the "low-speed" car chase); the IBM Think Pad (Judge Ito's courtroom lap top computer with enlarged-for- TV IBM logo); Bloomingdale's (possible purchase point of the now evidentiary bloodied gloves); Ben & Jerry's ice-cream (or was it frozen yoghurt?); McDonald's (where OJ drove, with Kato Kaelin, in his blue Bentley after his daughter's dance recital on the night of the murders); Mezzaluna (the quiet Brentwood restaurant, scene of Nicole Brown's last supper, where Ron Goldman, the other victim, was a waiter - and where it is now impossible to get a reservation); Reebok tennis shoes (which OJ says he was wearing on the night of 12 June; now held as evidence); spouse abuse hotlines (use of which has escalated dramatically since "the events").

TRIAL SPIN-OFFS

OJ, the books: a recent New York Times bestseller list included: at No 1, I Want to Tell You, by OJ Simpson; at No 2, Raging Heart, by Shelia Weller (an account of OJ's marriage to Nicole); and, at No 9, Nicole Brown Simpson, by Faye D. Resnick and Mike Walker.

OJ, the 900 phone lines: OJ himself started the first, to help raise funds for his defence. Callers were asked to dial in with any information on "who did it". (Howard Stern, the radio talk show host, dialled the number on the air to say: "OJ, I know who did it! You did it.") Additional lines have been set up by AC and Star magazine.

OJ, the fitness video: filmed just days before the murder; used in evidence to undermine the defence's claim that arthritic enfeeblement rendered OJ physically unfit to have committed the double murder.

OJ, the theme tune: by British composer Paul Foss, aired dozens of times a day before CNN's coverage. Previously rejected by ITN's News at Ten. But Foss does not receive royalties: he was paid a flat fee.

OJ, the CD-ROM: The People v OJ Simpson: An Interactive Companion to the OJ Simpson Trial. A "tool for analysing the facts uncovered in the case", made by CNN Interactive.

OJ, on-line: Talkback Live, CNN's mid-day interactive talk show.

ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS

Yoghurt or ice-cream? A paper cup found just inside Nicole's doorway on the night of "the events" was said to have contained melting Ben & Jerry's ice-cream. But why wasn't it liquid by the time the police arrived? The defence claims that this means the murder couldn't have taken place at 10.15pm. But could it have been frozen yoghurt, which, because of the preservatives, melts more slowly? No one knows. And what flavour was it, anyway?

What does the Akita know? With agitated persistence that would do Lassie proud, Nicole's dog led neighbours to the scene of the crime. But it did not attack Nicole's attacker. This led to comparisons to the behaviour of the "dog which didn't bark in the night" in the Sherlock Holmes story, "Silver Blaze". That dog's master, as it happens, was called Simpson.

What does AC know? Al Cowling, OJ's best friend, who drove him down the freeway in flight from police, knows more than anybody (apart from the Akita). What could he and OJ possibly have been saying to each other? Was OJ really intent on killing himself with the gun he held to his own head? If so, why? Why did he so urgently need to speak to his mother (dialling her by cellular)? And will AC ever spill the beans?

THE OJ TEST: have you OD'd on OJ?

1 What football number did OJ wear as running-back for the Buffalo Bills?

2 What sound did Nicole's dog make on the night of the murder? (a) A loud bark (b) A whimper (c) A plaintive wail

3 What did Nicole say in her 911 call made on 25 October 1993? (a) "He's f***ing going nuts" (b) "He's going nuts" (c) "He's going to kill me"

4 Describe the alleged murder-weapon

5 What kind of gate opens into the Rockingham estate, aka OJ's residence?

6 How many thuds did Kato Kaelin hear outside his wall on OJ's Rockingham Estate the night of the murders?

7 Which reporter gets to sit directly in front of the Brown family in the courtroom?

8 What did roadside observers chant during the low-speed chase?

9 Which coins were found in Nicole's driveway on the night of "the events"?

10 What do the initials OJ stand for?

ANSWERS: 1: 32. 2: (c). 3: (a). 4: 15in serrated knife. 5: a hydraulic gate. 6: three. 7: Dominick Dunne, Vanity Fair. 8: "Go, OJ, go!" and "Set the Juice loose!".9: a dime and a penny. 10: Orenthal James.

SCORES: 0-2: out of touch. 3-6: a little too well-informed for comfort. 7-9: you have a problem. 10: seek professional help.

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