Thursday, September 20, 2007

“Camp O.J.” is back in business.

After a 10-year hiatus, a slavering press corps is once again in hysteria mode over O.J. Simpson, who riveted America’s attention in 1994 after he was accused of killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. He was acquitted in a 1995 criminal trial and then found liable in the slayings in a civil case two years later.

Not much has changed since then.

“You know, I love watching you. And I am amazed at the stuff you come up with,” Yale Galanter told a phalanx of fidgeting journalists yesterday.

Mr. Galanter is Simpson’s defense attorney and was poised to escort him to freedom from a Las Vegas jail after posting $125,000 bail.

Indeed, the former NFL star was released in midafternoon after spending three days in the Clark County Detention Center, darting away in a blue sport coat and carrying a little black bag. He did not step into a white Ford Bronco, however. Instead, Mr. Galanter and Simpson drove off in a gray Dodge sedan.
VIDEO: Raw footage: Simpson’s ride back to Florida
VIDEO: Audiotape of Simpson hotel heist

Meanwhile, chaos ruled. Even Britney Spears was forgotten for the moment as reporters screamed questions, publicity hounds waved “Free O.J.” placards and cameras rolled.

Since Simpson was arrested Sunday and charged with possession of a deadly weapon and nine other felony counts, the media coverage has been wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling.

Just like the old days.

A decade ago, the thousand-member media horde spent 30 months covering Simpson’s legal entanglements, brightening the careers of, among others, MSNBC’s Dan Abrams and prosecutor Marcia Clark, who landed a $4 million book deal and a stint on “Entertainment Tonight” in the aftermath. The spread of broadcast trailers outside the Santa Monica, Calif., courthouse came to be know as “Camp O.J.” — or more affectionately “Camp O.J. by the Sea” among insiders.

After a civil jury found Simpson liable in the slayings in 1997, the big verdict was announced as President Clinton gave his State of the Union speech, prompting broadcasters to offer a split screen, and garnering Mr. Clinton’s speech the smallest audience on record — 27 million viewers — according to the Nielsen ratings.

And just like the old days, legions of journalists and production crews now have assembled to provide frantic O.J. dispatches.

CNN, Fox News and other networks have featured tidy two-minute O.J. updates, on average, four times an hour. There is much analysis. A rough estimate reveals that Simpson already has received almost 15 hours of coverage on the three major news channels in the days since his arrest.

Has O.J. Part Deux had an impact on the ratings? Maybe.

The first time around, the twin trials generated huge audience interest, with equally huge ratings spikes on CNN in particular.

Judging from preliminary numbers from Nielsen, there’s a little bounce — but no lightning strikes. On Monday, 1.6 million viewers tuned into Fox News and 910,000 to CNN. The next day, the numbers were 1.8 million and 956,000 respectively.

And while the scurrying press and added security might prove a headache to Las Vegas, there are hidden benefits to O.J. overload.

Market Watch yesterday determined that the coverage eventually could bring $50 million in extra revenue to the city from journalists’ expenses. But managing editor Tom Bemis also warned that coverage of the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics and both political conventions could be compromised if Simpson’s newest trial takes place next summer.

“The news media forever returns to O.J., but with caveats. The O.J. story is a dream come true for cable news. For print and hard-news types, it’s just a nightmare from which they never wake, to borrow from James Joyce,” observed S. Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

Mr. Galanter, meanwhile, would not yield to journalistic caterwaul yesterday.

“We have to deal with this situation in the courtroom, not the media. You don’t fight for your client in front of a TV camera,” he announced above the thrum of an overhead news helicopter, refusing to answer questions.

“There is a guy in the crowd wearing a cap with ‘I love famous people,’ written on it,” noted Mr. Abrams yesterday. “That reflects everything about covering O.J. Again.”

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