Media in tizz over whether politics or showbiz leads

It was, to use NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw's memorable phrase on one of US television's crazier nights, "a bifurcation of America's attention span". Or in less tangled language, how on earth do the networks cope with two simultaneous mega-stories, President Bill Clinton's State of the Union address and the OJ Simpson civil verdict?

In the end, they were spared the decision of whether to cut short the most sacred constitutional moment of the year to cover the climax of the most lurid trial of the year. By chance, or perhaps by merciful design of Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki in Santa Monica, the verdict came at the very end of the President's speech, and humanity's only loss was the instant judgement of it by the political talking heads. But not before a media tizzy rare to behold. The condition of a superpower and a President's vision of his country on the eve of the millennium are all very well. But what matters in television are the punters and the ratings.

When word came at around 7.30pm that the Simpson jury had made up its mind, between a meandering Clinton speech and a massive OJ fix, there was just no contest. Less than an hour before the President was to begin at 9pm, the networks were pleading with the White House and with the Speaker's office; was there not some means of postponing the address? No way, was the reply of Mike McCurry, Mr Clinton's spokesman, "We're fulfilling a constitutional obligation." The founding fathers, alas, had not reckoned with the case of Orenthal James Simpson.

Ironically, the White House had moved the speech back to Tuesday, to avoid a clash with last night's Miss USA beauty pageant.

Instead, it was swamped not by pulchritude, but by the surreal. The screens showed a vehicle illuminated by arc lights: Was it Mr Clinton's limousine waiting in the White House driveway, or the estate wagon parked at OJ's estate that would take him to the Los Angeles courthouse? Surely the former - but since when did palm trees grow in Washington? So once again, over to Tom Brokaw and his summing-up of the OJ-Clinton double act: "It's been that kind of world in this country for the past five years."

Not that the US is unique, in that respect.

In some respects, there are remarkable similarities to the tussle between the Labour Party and the BBC, when the not-guilty decision by the Los Angeles court in the first OJ trial came on the same day as Tony Blair's keynote speech to the party conference.

The BBC came under strong pressure to make the Blair speech, rather than the OJ verdict, the lead item on the flagship Nine O'Clock News.

This the BBC duly did, although the corporation vehemently denied that it had succumbed to political pressure. News at Ten had no such qualms and majored on OJ.

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