Feder flashback: The night O.J. rode into history

June 17, 1994

June 17, 1994

On June 17, 1994, the opening ceremonies of the World Cup were held at Soldier Field in Chicago. That same day, President Bill Clinton delivered a speech to residents of Robert Taylor Homes on the South Side. Yet both stories got short shrift on the 10 o’clock news that night.

Instead, Chicago and the rest of the country were mesmerized by the slow-speed police chase of O.J. Simpson in his white Ford Bronco across 60 miles of Los Angeles freeways and city streets.

None of the 95 million Americans who tuned in knew that what followed would become a national obsession for more than a year or would usher in a new era in popular culture. It’s been persuasively argued that reality television was born that night. (Hello, Kardashians!)

All we knew then was that a former football player and has-been actor had been accused of brutally murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman five days earlier.

Here is my Sun-Times column of June 19, 1994. (Posted with permission.)

Live on TV, Millions See the Fall

More riveting than any made-for-television drama, the pursuit and capture of O.J. Simpson played out Friday night before millions of disbelieving viewers.

When it was over, Americans had added another shared experience to their collective memory bank: The surreal image of a fallen sports idol running out on murder charges live on television!

Networks and local stations ditched regular programming as news helicopters beamed live, continuous coverage of Simpson’s mild goose chase with police across 60 miles of Southern California freeways, ending up in the driveway of his own Brentwood home. As if cued by a Hollywood director, a lone dog wandered out by the van while SWAT teams stayed back.

“New wave television shock” was the term coined by NBC’s Tom Brokaw to explain why thousands of bystanders had lined the freeways to cheer Simpson on and hundreds more gathered outside his home.

ABC’s Peter Jennings, the first of the network big guns called into action, summed up the mood of the final minutes before Simpson’s surrender as “excruciatingly tense . . . sad.” Indeed, the presence of Jennings, Brokaw and CBS’ Dan Rather seemed to elevate a local Los Angeles crime story to macabre national tragedy.

As news anchors noted throughout the bizarre ordeal, there could be no happy ending: Simpson would take his own life, as he apparently had threatened to, or he would be arrested and tried for murder. Either way, the stakes were life and death.

O.J. Simpson

O.J. Simpson

Simpson finally walked out of the van under cover of darkness. After following the nail-biting drama for hours, it seemed like an oddly unsatisfying conclusion for viewers who had hoped for a glimpse of the star.

“This has been the most incredible series of events that we have ever witnessed on a single news story,” said one L.A. news anchor. For once, tabloid television’s hyperbole proved true.

Despite inevitable comparisons with earlier live television events, this particular one was possible only through the combination of uniquely ’90s technology. Simpson’s cellular phone calls served as a homing device for police. Once authorities had zeroed in on the white Ford Bronco he was calling from, television’s use of video cameras mounted inside helicopters and a galaxy of satellites brought it all home.

The embarrassment of Simpson’s initial escape notwithstanding, the Los Angeles Police Department fared well from a television image viewpoint. The trail of police cars keeping a respectful distance while following Simpson and the patience and restraint police showed before his surrender contrasted starkly with the LAPD depicted on the infamous Rodney King video. Score one for public relations.

Throughout prime time, NBC showed a split screen of the Simpson pursuit in Los Angeles and live coverage of Game 5 of the NBA Finals in New York. Which mattered more? It seemed as if NBC couldn’t decide.

Another casualty of the night was that Chicago television newsrooms were forced to jettison stories they had been working on all day. The spectacular opening of the World Cup here and the visit of President Clinton to the Robert Taylor Homes were practically ignored.

The night also proved again that once television jumps onto a live, breaking story, there’s no getting off and no telling how and when it will finally end.

Along the way, ABC aired a live call from a man who claimed to be a neighbor sitting inside a nearby van with a clear view of Simpson in his driveway. He ended his supposed eyewitness account with the phrase “Babba-Booey,” a signal of allegiance to shock jock Howard Stern. Al Michaels then sadly informed Jennings that they had been hoaxed.

Yet another price of live television.