Twenty years ago Tuesday night, 95 million Americans watched a white Ford Bronco carrying O.J. Simpson move slowly along California streets and freeways. It essentially started a new television era.
Truth is stranger than fiction, Mark Twain famously penned in an era before the bewitching flicker of images began to consume most all of human culture.
Fiction, he wrote, is obliged to stick to possibilities. But stories about unfolding “reality” in time – the unpredictable dramas of news and sports, mostly – keep an audience irresistibly on edge. Yet even as an era of film and later of television would become the dominant modes of stories that humans tell, fiction still had sway.
But 20 years ago Tuesday night, as 95 million stood riveted in front their TVs, transfixed by a surreal helicopter-eyed view of a white Ford Bronco moving slowly along a route of California streets and freeways, the American experience of reality was about to enter an unpredictable era of its own.
O.J. Simpson, one of the most beloved football players in the history of the sport and a pioneering corporate shill and actor, was in the back seat of the Bronco with a gun to his head. He had been told that day to turn himself in, accused of brutally murdering his wife, a glamorous California blonde, and her attractive young male friend.
Mr. Simpson’s longtime college and professional teammate, Al Cowlings, was driving this proto-SUV – an automobile class that would later become one of the most popular in America – begging the fleet of police cruisers to keep at bay while he tried to talk down his suicidal friend. (Mr. Cowlings also had a cellphone in his vehicle – a luxury for the well-off then, the year when IBM sold the first “smart phone” prototype for $1,100, though the term was years from being coined.)
In retrospect, the 16-month media circus that followed this slow, omg-inducing highway chase – including the fully televised trial, which struck a deep chord in the country’s centuries-long grapplings with race and racism – came during an unprecedented time of cultural crossroads. A host of changing valences in media, technology, and social mores were converging to form the matrix we live in now.
Back then, the Internet was mostly just a curiosity, and interactive “social media” barely went beyond call-in talk shows on radio and TV. The Simpson “trial of the century” also took place before the dominance of the 24/7 news cycle, the dozens of shows featuring tabloid celebrity news, and the cheaply made but highly lucrative reality shows that still dominate channels today.
“There will never be another case that has the combination of circumstances, facts, and timing that allowed this case to explode,” Dan Abrams, who covered the trial for Court TV, told The Washington Post.
Even on its own, the story would have gripped the country: Simpson, whose million-dollar smile and gridiron prowess was trusted by much of white America, as it listened to what this sports icon had to sell, now fit right into a murderously racist cultural narrative about black men and white women. (Coincidentally, Arnold Palmer, one of the few sports celebrities to make as much promoting products as Simpson, famously played his final round ever at the US Open that day.)
When Simpson was acquitted of the murders less than a year and half later, the axis of white and black experience in American history was another riveting contrast of boisterous celebration and stunned silence.
Afterward, CNN, the only 24/7 cable news channel, was joined by Fox News and MSNBC, which changed the genre into a more freewheeling approach to the news, emphasizing boisterous, emphatic opinions that millions of viewers now clamor for.
And TV journalists like Harvey Levin, who covered the trial for a Los Angeles station, found a popular new niche for celebrity gossip. Mr. Levin founded the now-famous news site TMZ.
TV producers noticed, too. “Reality” dramas soon became the most lucrative shows on TV.
“The chase was arguably TV's first reality show,” writes David Whitley in The Orlando Sentinel. “Instead of actors reciting scripts, cameras simply showed real people in strange situations. It cannot be coincidence that when Simpson went on the lam that morning, the attorney who read O.J.'s suicide note to media was named Kardashian” – a reference to Robert Kardashian, the late father of Kim, Kourtney, and Khloé, and one of Simpson’s most loyal friends.
Indeed, the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction chase was a “harbinger of an entirely different media landscape – an event that preoccupies everyone full-time for months on end,” Mark Crispin Miller, a media professor at New York University, told the Post.
“Fifty years ago, what you would’ve turned away from as outrageous, you turn to as kind of normal and interesting,” he said. “And then you can’t do without it.”