Tv Coverage Features Empty Talk

July 01, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

With reporters talking about "key matchups" and anchors asking experts for their instant analyses of who "scored first," TV covered O. J. Simpson's preliminary hearing as if it were football's Super Bowl.

Yesterday's performance by network and cable TV in the courtroom resembled Super Bowl coverage in another way, too: It was overblown and wildly out of proportion to the event itself.

The three major broadcast networks, as well as cable's Court TV and CNN, started at noon and stayed with the hearings live as long as they were in session -- whether or not there was anything happening. In the early going, all five news operations stayed with the story, even though the hearing was recessed for more than an hour while an expert tried to retrieve a copy of her resume.

"Advantage for the defense or prosecution so far?" CBS' Dan Rather asked his panel of legal experts when the first recess was called only about 45 minutes into the proceedings.

"Well, I don't think there's any advantage yet. It's too early," Gerald Lefcourt said, laughing at Mr. Rather's question.

Mr. Lefcourt is one of three legal experts CBS News had on hand throughout the day. CBS and the other networks had more legal experts yesterday than they did military experts during the gulf war.

Typical of the kind of empty talk and premature analysis that filled the airwaves came during that first break from Jack Ford, one of NBC's legal experts: "What's not surprising is that nothing too surprising has happened so far."

NBC had not only legal experts, but also what anchor Tom Brokaw called "social and cultural experts," including columnists Bob Herbert and Bob Greene, as well as essayist Anne Taylor-Fleming.

The big-game story line, which dominated TV's overall approach to the hearing, even included CNN producing graphics that looked like baseball cards for each member of the prosecution and defense. The video cards carried such highlights as wins and losses. They stopped just short of batting averages.

"O. J.'s looking good, he's coming back strong, he's ready to make a fight of this," said one of CNN's legal experts, Roger Cossack, sounding as if he were doing a pregame analysis for "ABC Monday Night Football."

What was going on yesterday with TV is not hard to figure out. The ratings say there is enormous interest in Mr. Simpson's case, but the networks and local affiliates aren't quite sure how ,, they should be covering it.

About 75 million viewers watched the freeway chase June 17. (The number was initially estimated by CBS and widely reported by others as 95 million viewers. But Nielsen now says it was actually 75 million.) Still, those are big numbers. Normal Friday night viewing is about 50 million.

Furthermore, the Simpson chase earned CNN its highest ratings since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) debate in November. And CNN was looking for a ratings boost.

The week before Nicole Brown Simpson's murder, CNN President Tom Johnson initiated a shake-up at the cable network in response to ratings that were down 15 percent in prime time and 30 percent in daytime from last year. Mr. Johnson said the lack of big domestic stories this year had hurt ratings.

CNN seemed confident in staying with its live coverage yesterday, but by late afternoon, NBC's Mr. Brokaw was calling the proceedings "tedious" and CBS' Mr. Rather described them as "droning on."

By 5 p.m., WMAR-TV and WJZ-TV, Baltimore's NBC and ABC affiliates respectively, had cut away from the networks to present local news. WBAL-TV, Baltimore's CBS affiliate, left the network at 6 p.m. for its local news.

The three broadcast networks offered their affiliates live coverage of the hearing until it ended at 7:30 p.m. (EDT), as well as the nightly news broadcast.

WBAL and WMAR carried the network newscasts starting at 6:30 p.m. WJZ, which normally tapes and then airs the ABC newscast at 7 p.m. -- a half-hour after it's fed from New York -- opted to carry live coverage of the last 30 minutes of the hearing.

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