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As Trump News Cycle Swirls, TV News Bets on Interest in O.J. Simpson

Ashleigh Banfield, the veteran TV-news reporter, has been wandering around this week in the 110-degree heat of Las Vegas. By the time Thursday rolls around, things in that rollicking city are likely to get even hotter.

Banfield is hoofing around Nevada to cover the July 20th parole hearing of O.J. Simpson, the one-time NFL great whose acquittal in the 1994 murder of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman, and subsequent sentencing in 2008 for robbery of sports memorabilia from a Las Vegas hotel room have captivated a nation for decades.

The country’s TV-news outlets believe Simpson’s plight will do so again. He became eligible for parole after serving nine years of a 33-year sentence.

Two high-profile TV series – ESPN’s 2016 documentary “O.J.: Made in America” and FX’s 2016 series “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” – returned Simpson’s legal travails to the national conversation. Now, the prospect that he may be freed at a Thursday parole hearing could intrigue not only the generation that watched his now infamous attempt to elude police in a 1994 chase in a white Ford Bronco but also the younger crowd that watched the recent dramatization of his legal trials.

The recent shows “have catapulted the O.J. story back into the zeitgeist,” says Banfield. “They have energized a young audience to be fascinated with a historical figure – if you want to call him that, if you’re under 40 – and energized those who lived through it.”  People, she added, “are fascinated with the next chapter.”

In a signal of strong interest in the matter, NBC News expects on Thursday to air a 1 p.m.  special report on the parole hearing, enlisting Lester Holt to anchor the proceedings. He will be joined by Savannah Guthrie and Cynthia McFadden, with Joe Fryer in Lovelock, Nevada – near the prison complex where Simpson currently resides.

Many of the nation’s mainstream news founts have found creative ways to cover the proceedings. Banfield will lead coverage on Time Warner’s HLN, appearing throughout the week with interviews of people like former Simpson attorney Yale Galanter and Jeffrey Felix, a retired guard who worked at Lovelock Correctional Center and monitored Simpson’s safety. On Thursday, she will lead coverage all afternoon and then host her regular primetime show at 8 p.m.

Fox News Channel will present live coverage of the parole hearing on Thursday, and has assigned Claudia Cowan, Jonathan Hunt and Dan Springer  to cover the event. Geraldo Rivera and Mark Fuhrman, the former LAPD cop whose testimony during the Simpson murder trial has been cited as playing a role in the football player’s acquittal, will both offer analysis. MSNBC will present coverage led by Ari Melber, the network’s chief legal correspondent and  MacFadden, NBC News’ senior investigative and legal correspondent. CNN has assigned reporters Jean Casarez, Sara Sidner and Paul Vercammenas to the event and will feature analysis from Jeffrey Toobin and Mark Geragos, among others. Banfield is likely to make appearances on that network, a Time Warner sister.

Even ESPN is getting in on the game. On Thursday, the Disney-owned network will present a 90-minute special broadcast of “Outside The Lines,” featuring live coverage of the parole hearing in Carson City, Nev. Jeremy Schaap will anchors from Bristol, Conn., and will be joined by  Ryan Smith and Jason Reid. Reporters Mark Schwarz and  Shelley Smith, in Nevada, will appear throughout the morning on “SportsCenter” and elsewhere. At 7 p.m., Hannah Storm will anchor a special edition of SportsCenter dedicated to the day’s Simpson proceedings. 

“The case has always been captivating,” said Greta van Susteren, the longtime cable-news anchor who served as a legal correspondent and analyst at CNN when the first trial captured national attention. “It had everything: pretty people. It had sports. It had crime. It had passion.”

And some of it will be stirred again. Some networks intend to offer more coverage after the hearing ends. CNN on Friday night will present “After O.J.: The Fuhrman Tapes Revealed,” in which correspondent Kyra Phillips reveals never-before-heard excerpts from the tapes that many believe altered the trajectory of the Simpson murder trial. Phillips will also interview a screenwriter who recorded Fuhrman and a former female officer who worked with him. At 10 p.m. on Saturday, Melber will present an in-depth examination of Simpson’s life since the murder trial in an hour that will feature interviews with business partners, friends, fellow inmates –  and rarely heard audio recordings of Simpson himself.

This latest chapter of the saga is likely to spur connections to the nation’s current news cycle. Without the frenzy around Simpson, America may never have been prodded to consider the unscripted news cycle as something fit for round-the-clock entertainment. Just as the current furor around President Donald Trump has brought new attention to TV anchors like Jake Tapper, Katy Tur and Chris Wallace,  or dread fascination with the terrorist attacks of 9/11 lent a profile boost to reporters including Banfield, so too did the Simpson trial lend celebrity status to various on-air personnel.

Van Susteren recalls landing an interview with Simpson himself. “He thanked me for being fair,” she recalled of a phone call she received from him, then asked her to come to California for a conversation. “He marched me though his version of events.”

Viewers were transfixed from the start. Approximately 95 million people tuned in to watch TV-news outlets cover the Bronco chase, and interest never waned.

TV cameras in courtrooms were still relatively novel, Van Susteren noted, and CNN and Court TV televised nearly every aspect of the story. Minor participants and witnesses like Kato Kaelin and Marcia Clark went on to become celebrities. The presiding judge in the original case, Judge Lance Ito, became fodder for a running bit on NBC’s “Tonight Show” under host Jay Leno. There are direct parallels to the fascination with Trump’s Washington, where wonky politicos and Trump family members are grist for “Saturday Night Live” sketches and help fuel the antics of late-night hosts including Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers and Samantha Bee.

In short, America could probably not have Trump without first digesting O.J. On Thursday, the nation will be reminded of that fact, as one cycle of frenzied news coverage suddenly starts to vie with another. “A lot of people believe this is his final chapter,” said Banfield. “But some may believe it is the return – a continuing chapter.”

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