As Kathleen Sullivan covers O. J. Simpson, anything qualifies as entertainment

March 19, 1995|By Roger Simon | Roger Simon,Sun Columnist

LOS ANGELES -- Kathleen Sullivan sits in the TV studio several miles from the O. J. Simpson trial sipping a can of Diet Coke.

She is wearing a dark gray suit jacket and a large gold necklace.

She is also wearing gray pants, but on TV nobody cares what you wear below the waist.

She is sitting behind the O. J. anchor desk at E! Entertainment Television, a 24-hour cable network "dedicated to the world of entertainment."

Pets and real estate

She has just finished with doggie "psychiatrist" Matthew Margolis, who has answered the question whether Kato the Akita could have picked up the bloody glove at Bundy and carried it to Rockingham. (Maybe; maybe not.)

A makeup woman comes out and touches up Sullivan's cheekbones with a sable brush.

Sullivan's hair, once so prematurely gray it got her fired from network television, is now dyed to a very dark auburn.

In two months, she will be 42, and that is getting old for a woman on television. (Men, apparently, can stay on television for as long as theycan sit upright in a chair. Ask David Brinkley and Mike Wallace.)

"Thirty back!" the director says loudly. "Ten back! Stand by. Here we go. Five. Four. Three. Two."

Sullivan's face brightens exactly on cue.

"Prime real estate or a prime pain?" she says into the camera. "We talk to Elaine Young, who sold O. J. his home 17 years ago!"

Young, wearing a very tight pink dress covered in sequins, tells how she also has sold homes to Sharon Tate, Rock Hudson and Jayne Mansfield.

And while a logical question to her might be, "Have you ever sold a house to someone who was not accused of murder, murdered, an AIDS victim or decapitated?" E! tries to be a little more upbeat than that.

It is one of only three networks that is carrying the Simpson trial live and gavel to gavel -- CNN and Court TV are the others -- and it likes to remind viewers of the difference.

On E!, for instance, you get to ask real estate brokers what effect gruesome stabbings have on property values.

"After Sharon Tate was murdered, I got dozens of calls from people wanting to buy the home," says Young, who is now with Coldwell Banker.

"That's macabre," Sullivan says.

"That's California!" Young chirps.

Go to commercial.

Which gives us a moment to ask ourselves the Big Question:

Is the gruesome double murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman a fair subject for entertainment?

Everything is entertainment

And the answer is: What country have you been living in, pal?

In America, everything is a fair subject for entertainment.

The Simpson trial is the object of nightly jokes by David Letterman ("The jury asked Judge Ito if they could take a field trip to the Menendez brothers' house!"), and newspapers have done countless stories on the "lighter" side of the Simpson trial, from the button-sellers outside to the hair and dress styles of the participants inside.

Which has not stopped Kathleen Sullivan from getting rapped in the teeth by the critics.

Not only was E! looked upon as being tasteless for broadcasting the Simpson trial on the same network that carries radio shock-jock Howard Stern and the popular "Talk Soup," a daily review of talk shows, but Sullivan was looked upon as damaged goods.

She was the sweater girl for ABC during the 1984 Summer Olympics (for which she got an Emmy nomination) and then was made co-host in 1988 of "CBS This Morning." She was fired on Valentine's Day in 1989.

She was accused of sleeping with ABC executive Roone Arledge and tennis star Martina Navratilova (Sullivan denies both) and of having a "frisky" New York nightlife that left her looking tired and haggard on early morning TV.

'They called me old'

To Sullivan, her real sins were more plain: In a year in which her father died and her husband divorced her, she stopped coloring her gray hair and gained weight.

"They called me old, unattractive and said, 'No one wants to look at her anymore,' " Sullivan told a reporter. "I broke a lot of news interviews, but that wasn't important to them."

The subject is still painful enough to bring tears to her eyes, but there is still a flash of anger there, too.

Once asked if CBS was sexist in firing her, Sullivan said, "Well, I was sitting next to a man who was bald, overweight and grumpy." She was speaking of Harry Smith, who is still a co-host of the show.

And then there were those commercials: To many, Sullivan had crossed the line (the same one Linda Ellerbee had crossed) from journalism to commercialism when she started working for Weight Watchers.

So Sullivan came to E! with a certain amount of baggage.

And some of the reviews of her first day anchoring the trial were pretty rough.

One critic called E! "the network devoted to covering breaking fluff," and another said of Sullivan: "Appearing rusty and tense behind the giggles yesterday, she seemed at times to skirt the shoals of television burlesque."

Oh, yeah, one thing: Since Sullivan went on the air with the Simpson coverage, E!'s ratings have quadrupled.

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