'Dateline' draws fire for Simpson interview

October 11, 1995|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,Sun Television Critic

NBC and its affiliates received thousands of complaints from viewers, the National Organization of Women blasted the network, and a "pained" Bryant Gumbel called in sick.

That was just some of the reaction to news yesterday that NBC would air a live, commercial-free interview with O. J. Simpson during a three-hour edition of "Dateline NBC" starting at 8 tonight, according to Andrew Lack, president of NBC News.

Lack defended tonight's prime-time Simpson package during a conference call, saying NBC News is not paying Simpson, has not agreed to any ground rules and has an obligation as a journalistic enterprise to do the interview. The interview will be conducted by Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric.

"Why are we doing it? I think it falls under the heading of your responsibility as a journalist," Lack said.

But he acknowledged there were many who disagree with him.

In answer to a question about the NBC affiliate in Boston being flooded with complaints, Lack said, "We're getting a similar response in New York, and it's not surprising to us. O. J. Simpson is a controversial figure in this country, and an interview with him is going to create that kind of reaction from folks."

WBAL, the NBC affiliate in Baltimore, received about 80 calls concerning the interview -- a "moderately heavy" amount, said General Manager Phil Stolz, who added: "And some of the calls weren't to complain -- they just wanted to know when it was going to air."

Lack said the National Organization for Women had also complained, and has threatened to picket the network tonight.

Asked about one NOW official's saying NBC was committing "economic suicide" with women by giving Simpson a forum, Lack replied, "We're not in a popularity contest here. We're journalists. I know there are a lot of people who will be offended by anything O. J. Simpson says or any appearance he makes anywhere."

NOW has been offered a chance to respond to Simpson's interview during tonight's show, Lack said. "And we expect that they will respond," he said.

"But no group -- no matter how intense their negative feelings may be -- is going to influence my responsibility to go forward as a journalist and interview O. J. Simpson in this particular time and place," he added.

Lack provided more particulars about how NBC got the interview and the manner in which it will be conducted.

He confirmed a report in yesterday's Sun that Don Ohlmeyer, NBC's West Coast president and a staunch supporter of Simpson, was key. Once the idea was brought to him, Lack said he had a 20-minute phone conversation with Simpson in which he laid out his "vision" of who would do the interview and how it would be staged. Lack said Simpson made no demands except to ask that the interview run without commercial interruption.

Lack said he initially wanted to use a "team approach" in the interview -- with Brokaw, Couric and Bryant Gumbel.

But Gumbel is a longtime friend and golfing partner of Simpson's. After discussing with Gumbel the nature of his friendship with the former football star, Lack told the "Today" show anchorman he would not be allowed to participate in the interview.

"It was clear to me there was a conflict of interest," Lack said.

Lack said Gumbel "understands and acknowledges" the correctness of management's decision. He later acknowledged, however, that Gumbel was "pained" by the decision. He declined to answer a question asking whether Gumbel's absence from yesterday's "Today" show was related. "He called in sick," he said, noncommittally.

So, Couric and Brokaw will do the interview, starting at about 9 tonight from NBC in Burbank. Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran will be in the studio but not on camera, Lack said. He explained Cochran's presence as "necessary" because Simpson faces civil suits from the Brown and Goldman families related to

the murders.

Information brokers

Simpson, 48, a former football commentator for NBC, last week was acquitted in the June 12, 1994, killings of his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. Simpson did not testify during the trial.

Couric and Brokaw will ask "the tough questions that are on everybody's minds," said Lack, adding that he hopes viewers don't expect to see Simpson examined as if he were on the witness stand.

"This is not a courtroom. This is a television studio . . . and we're not lawyers, just humble brokers of information, if you will," he said.

Asked why NBC wasn't using a lawyer -- like Jack Ford, its chief legal correspondent -- Lack defended Couric and Brokaw, saying they had "great expertise" on the case.

Ratings winner, money loser

As for Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips, the regular anchors of "Dateline NBC," Lack said they will be "deeply involved" in reports and interviews leading up to and following the interview.

Those segments will carry commercials, but ad rates will not bejacked up above normal levels, according to Lack. In fact, he says, NBC will make less money than it normally would with its regular Wednesday schedule because of the hour without commercials tonight.

"We're losing money on it," Lack said. "Yes, the ratings are going to be sizable, I assume . . . But, in terms of money in our pocket, we're losing on it."

Like most things connected with the Simpson spectacle, that statement is both true and false, depending on the point of view from which it is examined.

Yes, NBC will lose about $1.2 million during the U.S. broadcast of the commercial-free hour. But the interview will also be carried on its international super channel, where it can easily make that up in ad sales leading up to, and following, the interview.

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