Fox drop kicks O.J. special

Rupe doesn't stoop for Simpson combo

Rupert Murdoch decided Monday that we — and News Corp. — are better off not knowing how O.J. would have done it.

Pummeled by days of acid criticism on the planned publication of Simpson’s book “If I Did It” and an eponymous Fox broadcast special next week, the mogul abruptly canceled both book and show.

“I and senior management agree with the American public that this was an ill-considered project. We are sorry for any pain this has caused the families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson,” Murdoch said in a statement.

A company spokesman declined to comment further, as did Murdoch and chief operating officer Peter Chernin.

Project, which likely would have involved a cash payment to Simpson, was slammed by the Brown and Goldman families, victims’ rights groups, other networks that turned it down and Fox affiliates — some of which refused to air publisher Judith Regan’s interview with the former football star.

Simpson was acquitted of murder in a criminal trial in 1995 but later found liable by a civil court of killing his ex-wife and her friend.

News Corp. saw criticism snowball last week and into the weekend. Murdoch is in Australia, and he pulled the plug from there this morning.

“It’s not always that obvious until you put something out there. Then it seems so obvious,” one company insider said. “Rupert’s taking the responsibility along with the rest of senior management.”

Fox Broadcasting was staying mum on Murdoch’s decision.

With its fall fare failing to catch on with auds, the last thing Fox execs needed was a reason for the nation’s press corps to shine a spotlight on the net’s woes. But that’s just what last week’s announcement of the special did.

Reporters seized on the scheduling of the sweeps stunt as a sign of Fox’s “desperation” in the face of bad ratings. In truth, unless the O.J. special had produced Super Bowl-size ratings — and that seems unlikely — the event wouldn’t have mattered much to Fox’s overall Nielsen standings.

What’s more, the net is basically in a holding pattern until January, when “American Idol” and “24” will return and, presumably, rescue Fox from ratings hell.

Insiders suggest Fox execs knew about Regan’s plans to publish an O.J. tome several months ago. Deal for the interview special apparently didn’t come together until about two weeks ago, when tabloid media began reporting buzz about Simpson’s “confessional.”

It’s believed that is when Fox reality guru Mike Darnell called Regan to discuss the idea of an interview special. Regan already had been talking to other nets about interviews connected to the publishing of the book.

While Darnell might have initiated the conversation, insiders note it would have been impossible for either Darnell or Fox Entertainment prexy Peter Liguori to greenlight the special on his own. Chernin, who remains closely involved in Fox’s primetime development, surely would have had to sign off.

It also seems likely Chernin would’ve sought Murdoch’s input as well.

One Hollywood insider not connected to Fox predicted little long-term fallout from the brouhaha.

“It’s like everything else: It’ll go away in a couple days,” the exec said.

“Michael Richards has already knocked this off the top of the news cycle,” he added, referring to reports of the former “Seinfeld” star’s use of racial epithets in response to heckling during a standup routine Friday.

Fox was planning to air the macabre two-night sweeps event titled “O.J. Simpson: If I Did It, Here’s How It Happened” in two hourlong segs at 9 p.m. Nov. 27 and 29.

Regan had taped an interview with Simpson that was to serve as the basis for the broadcast. Fox said that in it, Simpson “describes how he would have carried out the murders he has vehemently denied committing for over a decade.”

Simpson’s book, “If I Did It,” was to hit bookstores the next day, Nov. 30.

ReganBooks is part of News Corp.’s HarperCollins publishing imprint.

The move was lambasted by pundits — including News Corp. employee Bill O’Reilly. Fox programming is known for veering every so often into bad-taste territory, but the consensus was this crossed a line. One industryite noted it may be the first and last time O’Reilly, Bob Schieffer and Rosie O’Donnell agreed on anything.

It got weirder when Regan penned a turgid defense of the project based on her experience as a battered wife.

Then there was an avalanche of criticism from affiliated stations — many of which were squeamish about the two-hour special and skeptical they could make any money airing it.

On Monday, broadcaster Pappas Telecasting, which owns four Fox stations, applauded the decision to yank it, calling it “a victory for the people who spoke out. … We congratulate the leaders of the Fox network for reconsidering their earlier decision. After all, broadcasters have a dual duty. We are not just businesspersons — we are public trustees as well.”

Lin Broadcasting, which has five Fox stations, had announced it wouldn’t carry the special.

Sinclair Broadcasting — with 19 affiliates, the biggest owner of Fox stations outside News Corp. — hadn’t yet made the call.

Fox stations typically have two minutes per hour to sell local advertising, but they had trouble finding any takers. The special would have been the lead-in to local news on Fox stations, and sources said advertisers had been balking at the first half-hour of the newscasts to avoid being associated with the special.

“I don’t think anybody wanted to be associated in any way, shape or form with the project,” said Bill Carroll, VP of television for Katz Media Group and ad rep for local stations.

Asked at a luncheon last week if he was getting any takers, Fox sales prexy Jon Nesvig quipped sarcastically, “My phone is ringing off the hook.”

With “If I Did It” history, Fox will revert to its previously announced programming for Nov. 27 and 29, airing repeats of “House” and “Bones” instead of Simpson.

Rights to the tome remained the big unanswered question — with the possibility that the content still could make its way into the market in revised form.

When a book is canceled before it is published, rights typically revert to the author, unless the publisher offers a buyout or makes another special arrangement. Experts said there was a chance that Simpson — or the mysterious third party to whom Regan said she has been paying the author’s fee — can now release the book or shop it elsewhere. The possibility that any publisher of repute will pick it up is slim indeed.

(Michael Learmonth in New York contributed to this report.)

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