Simpson trial is no place for an all-sports network

ON THE AIR

September 26, 1994|By MILTON KENT

In light of possible NBA and NHL walkouts or lockouts, ESPN Radio's Hank Goldberg lamented the other night that if Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lance Ito follows through on his threat to impose a broadcast ban on the O. J. Simpson trial, there will be no sports on this fall."

Ito will, no doubt, be pleased to know that instead of conducting a trial where a man's guilt or innocence is decided, he'll be refereeing a sporting contest of sorts.

If Simpson "loses," maybe Ito will place him in the penalty box for two minutes or give him 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct.

If that sounds ludicrous, it's no more so than ESPN's presence at the proceedings, which distorts and trivializes the criminal justice system.

Since Simpson's former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman, a Los Angeles waiter, were found stabbed to death outside her home on June 12, ESPN has stood with other networks, bringing moment after breathless moment into the nation's living rooms.

There is a clear if not lurid interest in this case, but there are other places to satisfy that interest than ESPN.

Neither the public or, more importantly, the trial process, is served well by equating the trial with some legal clash of titans, where the side that scores the most points wins.

The efforts of ESPN and companion channel ESPN2, which will carry gavel-to-gavel coverage after jury selection, are well-meaning, but badly misplaced on all-sports networks, since this is not a sports story.

Granted, Simpson's impact on the game of football is unassailable, but that career ended 15 years ago, and he is probably more well-known now for his acting, endorsements and sportscasting than for football.

ESPN's coverage of Mike Tyson's Indianapolis rape trial was on slightly steadier ground -- but not by much -- because Tyson was still an active athlete.

One example of the trivialization of the Simpson trial came last week in a "SportsCenter" opening tease, which promised a theme of defense during the program, with brief clips of Simpson and his attorneys placed next to preseason hockey footage.

ESPN has, in fairness, attempted to cover the case as a news-gathering organization would, with two reporters, Mark Schwartz and Bob Sirkin, and attorney Don Wager as a legal analyst.

The problem is that Schwartz and Sirkin recap the day'proceedings, then turn to Wager to place them in context, as if it were a sporting event.

All that's missing is for Wager to use a telestrator and deliver a well-placed "whap" or "boom", a la John Madden, when prosecutor Marcia Clark or lead defense counsel Robert Shapiro wins a ruling.

Considering what has passed for trial coverage -- on all the networks -- Madden, his chalkboard and coach's clicker still might be pressed into service before a verdict is reached.

Seen in all the right places

At least when opening arguments and testimony begin in the Simpson case, lots of Baltimoreans will be able to see it on ESPN2.

"The Deuce," which celebrates its first anniversary Saturday, can be seen in more than 390,000 households in the Baltimore market, making it one of top ESPN2 markets in the country, though it remains unavailable on the city's United Artists Cable system.

With programming targeted at the 18-to-34-year-old crowd, including college basketball and lacrosse and NHL, Canadian Football League, National Professional Soccer League and Major Indoor Lacrosse League contests, ESPN2 has grown steadily throughout the country and is now seen in more than 15 million homes.

A brighter shade of gray

Yesterday's "NFL Live" report on the Los Angeles Rams' possible move provided nothing that Baltimore football fans hadn't already heard.

But on-site reporter Jim Gray's hustle and initiative further illustrate why NBC's pre-game show is clearly superior to Fox's and on par with ESPN's "GameDay," though starting 30 minutes later.

Gray, a former reporter and producer at CBS, moved to NBC after Fox took NFC coverage away from CBS last December, and he has been the most valuable addition to the pre-game team.

NBC, while seeing an 18 percent ratings rise this year, lags behind Fox, though the gap is not as large as it was when CBS had the rights.

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