During the final few minutes of Tuesday night’s perfect finale of American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, the audience was shown a series of Where Are They Now-type frames commonly found at the end of shows and movies based on real people and events. We saw side-by-side comparisons of Marcia Clark and Sarah Paulson. We found out what Robert Shapiro is up to now.
But the Trial of the Century, for better or worse, changed the lives of more than just those who were in the courtroom day after day—it altered the trajectories of people and entities who subsisted by talking about it. People made careers out of their commentary—or mere proximity to the case—and networks used it to define their brands. Tastes for daytime TV were forever altered—and as soap opera audiences went down, 24-hour news ratings went up. While a number of people faded out of relevancy, here are the names we still speak of today—in some cases, more than we did then.
Harvey Levin / TMZ
Levin, the founder of TMZ, was a lawyer for the first two decades of his career. Though he was a well-established as a legal commentator for LA news programs by the ‘90s, it wasn’t until the OJ Simpson trial that his passion for law as entertainment hit its peak.
Writes The Guardian:
The trial left [Levin] with a fascination with celebrities and justice and how the two mixed in the public imagination. “Levin had his roots in the Simpson trial. He has been very skillful in tapping into the things that the Simpson trial brought out,” said Professor Dann Pierce, a popular culture expert at the University of Portland.
Nancy Grace / Court TV
While serving as an Assistant D.A. in Atlanta (where she was notable for having a “perfect record”), Nancy Grace “became well known as a Simpson commentator” on several networks, including Court TV. In 1996, the young cable channel paired her with Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran to launch a show entitled (what else?) Cochran & Grace.
After leaving Court TV, she moved her unique (and oft-criticized/lampooned) brand of self-righteous, murder-hungry courtroom journalism on HLN, where she remains to this day.
In a 1997 piece entitled “TV on Trial; There’ll be no easy verdict on Simpson coverage’s legacy,” the Dallas Morning News examined the channel’s broader influence—specifically on scripted television.
Self-professed Court TV addict Barbara Bosson, who plays a prosecutor on ABC’s new Murder One series, says she researched her role by watching the channel. Her husband and the show’s creator, Steven Bochco, likewise is trying to pattern Murder One’s courtroom scenes after “the real thing” on Court TV.
“It sort of rattled around in his brain for a while, and then we got really caught up in Court TV,” she says. “Not just the O.J. trial, but Court TV. We loved it. Steven remembered it one day when he was talking to (ABC entertainment president) Ted Harbert. And Ted said, Yes!’ The time and place with a good idea is like lightning striking.”
CNN / Fox News
In April 1995, four months into the trial, a study released “by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press” wrote, “The O.J. trial has clearly disrupted previous news consumption patterns around the country.”
Bill Wheatley, VP of NBC news at the time, responded to the disruptions by telling The Philadelphia Enquirer:
“There’s a history of CNN ratings spiking when events occur of broad national interest. But it’s always event-driven. We don’t expect that it will have long-term impact.”
Much to Wheatley’s surprise, I’m sure, viewers did keep watching CNN. And after Rupert Murdoch launched Fox News Channel in 1996, they began watching that, too.
On that note, 24-hour cable news couldn’t have become as popular as it did in the mid-’90s had it not stolen audiences from programs and networks on which they traditionally directed their eyes. In the 2014 documentary Soap Life: The Rise and Fall of the American Soap Opera, the trial is named as one of the many causes for the genre’s “steepest drop.”
Writes The Sydney Morning Herald:
The networks began shunting their soaps all over the schedule to accommodate live updates and trial coverage. In an age of printed TV guides, accurate program updates were hard to come by. One day, a show would be in its normal slot; the next, it had been bumped without warning to 2am. Loyal fans persisted but after weeks of this wild goose chase, many gave up.
American Crime Story showed the Kardashian clan (the children, specifically) more often than they probably needed to, but who can blame them? The Kardashians are an American pop culture phenomenon that comes along once in a generation, and they had their first brush with fame during the O.J. Simpson trial.
Though Kris Jenner never took the stand and had no direct impact on the trial’s outcome, there was Selma Blair in costume—begging for us to screencap her. And though there was no reason to show the Kardashian children after Simpson left Kim’s bedroom and hopped in A.C.’s Bronco, there they were, during the opening of Episode 3, being given a lecture about the unimportance and fleeting nature of fame by their father.
Ah, yes. The “morally corrupt” Faye Resnick. Had she not set the precedent for friends of Nicole Brown Simpson using their place on the periphery of the Simpson trial to make their own fame, Kris Jenner may never have been inspired to become her children’s momager.
After the trial, Resnick followed up her bestseller, Nicole Brown Simpson: The Private Diary of a Life Interrupted, with another book (1996's Shattered), and a nude spread in a 1997 issue of Playboy. She currently appears as a guest star on reality shows like The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and Keeping Up With the Kardashians just often enough to prevent her flickering star from fading.
These people and things, as The People vs. O.J. explored, show that the trial’s overall legacy has far surpassed that of a normal court case (and to an extent has masked the bottom line: that two people were killed), becoming such a big deal we are still talking its key players (and not so key players) decades later.
Image via screengrab.