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The ‘Dateline’ debacle

MEMO TO: Don Ohlmeyer

FROM: Peter Bart

NBC’s schedule has been acquiring some real panache on your watch, Don, what with “Friends,” “ER” and the like. As a tough-minded guy who believes in getting things done, you’ve even transformed 8 p.m. into the “yuppie hour.”

Given this record of success, Don, I have a suggestion for you: Stay out of the O.J. business.

Last week you were persuaded that NBC’s three-hour “evening with O.J.” was the proverbial “great idea whose time has come.” Now that the dust has settled, it’s apparent that it was a bad idea whose time will never come.

Indeed, the “special that wasn’t” managed to meet every criterion for bad television: It was exploitive, it was divisive and it would have been utterly lacking in any redeeming news or other social merit. Even though it never happened, it nonetheless tarnished the image of the news division.

And this was your idea? Say it ain’t so, Don.

I can already hear your counter-arguments: Why should O.J. be denied his right of free speech when the jury acquitted him?

The answer: This case was special, Don. The true “jurors” constituted virtually the entire country and, guess what- he was convicted.

Then there’s the other argument: O.J. is big news and hence a major TV interview is justified.

Wrong. As Bill Carter’s impromptu interview last week in the New York Times made perfectly clear, O.J. had absolutely nothing to tell us that shed light on anything. Stymied by his ubiquitous attorneys and by his own vacuity, here’s all that O.J. was prepared to tell us:

That “the media” raised the race card, not his attorneys; that he rejects opinion polls that suggest roughly 70% of the country believes he’s guilty; that he admits to being “a little cocky” but nonetheless is convinced he can persuade anyone of his innocence if given the chance; that, despite high legal bills, he’s still in fine financial shape, thank you very much, and still tools around in his Bentley and his Ferrari.

Finally, O.J. is ready to admit the error of his ways in “getting physical” with Nicole – apparently a jock’s euphemism for beating the shit out of his wife – and is even ready to counsel battered women about this syndrome.

These insights, Don, were provided by O J. himself in a somewhat bizarre phone-in interview with the TV writer of the New York Times, the purpose of which apparently was to explain why he’d withdrawn from “Dateline.” Carter himself was puzzled that O J. chose to call him, rather than David Margolick, who’d covered the case for the Times, which reinforces the theory that O J. wasn’t all that eager to face a well-primed Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric rather than the “celebrity interviewers” who’d initially been mentioned for the gig.

Why did OJ. think that his “Dateline” performance would qualify as “entertainment” rather than as “news”? Doesn’t he realize that he’s not particularly entertaining anymore – indeed that the sheer mention of his name ignites sparks between the races, not to mention the sexes. It’s not just the National Organization for Women that feels O.J. is a living symbol of spousal abuse – a formidable array of non-NOW women from the showbiz community faxed and phoned protests to NBC and to potential sponsors.


I realize, Don, that your role was merely to come up with the initial idea and that other “suits” then took it over, but I wonder if you share my queasiness about the final proposed format. The ever-growing participation of “news stars” in shows that basically represent celebrity-driven “pseudo news” would have caused Edward R. Murrow to turn over in his grave.

What happens to the credibility of Diane Sawyer when she tosses cream puff questions at Michael Jackson? How would Brokaw and Couric have looked had O.J. given his speeches about his Bentley and Ferrari and then declined to respond to substantive questions on the grounds that these would impede his chances to deal with civil lawsuits?


It would have been a mess – an embarrassment to the news division and to NBC.

All this underscores, Don, why the whole idea of “my evening with O.J.” was a bummer from the get-go. No matter how it was presented, the network would look like it was exploiting the controversy for commercial gain, even though the inflated ad rates initially demanded were later rescinded.

Which brings us to the final issue. O.J. may be a friend of yours, Don – as recently as January you publicly declared him innocent and criticized the press for not giving him a fair break- but here’s the rub:

O.J. has already had his big break. He’s a free man.

So it’s time to give your friend some advice, Don. Tell him to take a very long vacation. Like for the rest of his life.

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