The Simpson hearing: minimum excitement, maximum ratings

July 02, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

The O. J. Simpson hearing hasn't been very exciting, but that hasn't kept viewers from watching. At least that was the case on Thursday -- Day 1 of TV's full-court coverage.

The network audience Thursday afternoon was as large as for the first day of the Supreme Court confirmation hearing of Clarence Thomas in 1991, according to preliminary figures released by A. C. Nielsen yesterday.

The combined audience for the broadcast networks of ABC, NBC and CBS from noon to 3 p.m. (EST) Thursday was about 15 million homes, or 38 million viewers -- almost identical to the audience on Oct. 11, 1991, for Thomas' controversial hearing.

Such a comparison was not possible for cable network CNN, because of differences in computing and publishing ratings for broadcast vs. cable networks. But CNN's overall audience Thursday of 1.11 million homes, or 2.78 million viewers, was triple its audience for a comparable time period a year ago.

"The numbers really jumped starting at about 5. Those are good numbers," Ed Turner, the executive vice president at CNN, said yesterday. By 7 p.m., CNN's audience was 3.3 million homes.

The Nielsen office closed early for the holiday weekend, so a more detailed analysis was not available. But the overall assessment was that, while viewership was way up, it was not at record-setting levels.

In Baltimore, overnight ratings showed that the combined audience Thursday afternoon for the three network affiliates -- WMAR, WJZ and WBAL -- was about 33 percent or 50,000 homes above the daily average.

"Some viewers found it boring in terms of what was happening in the courtroom," said Joe Lewin, the general manager of WMAR. "And I think some people had tuned in expecting something to happen right away. But it's the kind of story you have to stay with, because it's just so big."

By and large, the networks and local affiliates did stay with the story in live coverage yesterday, even though there seemed to be more periods of recess than testimony.

And two distinct styles of coverage emerged.

ABC, the ratings leader, cut back on the breathlessness and hype. "This is not a sporting event," legal affairs correspondent Cynthia McFadden said in the early going, setting the tone for the most even-handed coverage from the networks.

"This is not 'Perry Mason,' " added ABC's Jeff Greenfield.

"There haven't been a great many developments in the case this morning," anchorman Peter Jennings admitted as the noon recess arrived.

On the other hand, the tone for CNN was set by this opening: "Hello, I'm Jim Moret in Los Angeles. It's Day 2 in the O.J. Simpson hearing, a day that promises more heated battles. . . . And there's the two-minute warning. . . . We're about to get under way."

That style, though, seems natural for CNN, which lives and dies in the ratings with wide-open, seat-of-the pants coverage of live events.

Yesterday's worst coverage came from CBS and NBC, which were still trying to play CNN's game.

NBC's Tom Brokaw announced the noon recess by referring to a sealed envelope that the defense had submitted, saying, "We will resume our coverage with that mystery envelope. Does it contain evidence that could clear O. J. Simpson? It's today's superstar."

That's news as soap opera.

As for Dan Rather, he was still in overdrive mode, overcompensating for the excesses of unsubstantiated reports by using the chant, "reportedly, supposedly, allegedly" before almost any statement about Simpson.

The one major difference in coverage between Thursday and yesterday came during the recess at 3 p.m. Thursday, only NBC dropped Simpson coverage so it could offer tape from Wimbledon.

Yesterday, CBS, ABC and NBC spared viewers an extra 1 1/2 hours of their expert-heavy analysis returning to entertainment programming.

As to whether they will stay with live coverage or cut back when the hearing resumes Tuesday, one network executive, who asked that his name not be used, put it this way: "As long as the ratings are there, we'll be, too."

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