NEW YORK — Television networks returned to the scene of an old obsession by casting aside regular daytime programming Thursday to cover O.J. Simpson’s parole hearing in Nevada on an armed robbery conviction.
When Simpson put down his head, raised it with a smile and said “thank you” after he was granted freedom following nine years in prison, comparisons to his acquittal for the 1994 murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman proved irresistible for many watching.
NBC’s Lester Holt said it was “a reaction not unlike one we saw in a Los Angeles courtroom in 1995.”
ABC, CBS and NBC, news networks CNN, Fox News Channel, HLN and MSNBC, and even ESPN and CNBC showed the parole board hearing live. For the broadcasters, it meant pausing soap operas and talk shows. For the news networks, it meant a brief respite from coverage of President Donald Trump. All were chasing the ratings achieved by the long-running coverage of Simpson’s murder trial more than two decades ago.
Commentators offered harsh assessments of the odd spectacle that NBC’s Savannah Guthrie dubbed “the parole hearing of the century.”
CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin, author of “The Run of His Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, said the hearing was “an absolute disgrace.”
“Seeing this just reinforces the belief that he is a deeply delusional and self-obsessed narcissist and good luck to America when he is let out,” Toobin said.
Enhancing the sense of a television time warp, Toobin and a fellow CNN commentator, Avena Martin, engaged in a heated argument about Simpson’s guilt or innocence in the murder of his wife.
While most of the networks let the hearing play out onscreen, ABC commentators injected their opinions. George Stephanopoulos said that Simpson’s daughter, Arnelle, was more effective in five minutes of testimony than her father was in a half hour. Analyst Dan Abrams was incredulous about a letter that Simpson’s lawyer read. “This is absurd,” he said.
Analyst Rikki Kleinman on CBS said Simpson needed to show remorse and instead seemed ornery at times. She and ABC’s Deborah Roberts were incredulous that Simpson seemed intent on relitigating his robbery conviction.
Nonetheless, Abrams said the decision to grant Simpson parole was not a surprise, given the parameters set by the board, even if many Americans hoped that the 1994 murder case would be a factor. The board was determining whether Simpson had been sufficiently punished for trying to steal sports collectibles in a Las Vegas hotel room.
Social media offered the biggest contrast to the coverage from 1995. Quotes from Simpson’s hearing spread on Twitter, making it instantly apparent which lines were sticking in viewers’ heads. “I’ve basically lived a conflict-free life,” was one Simpson line widely quote, as was “I’m not a guy who lived a criminal life.”
“You don’t have to be extremely attentive to realize this is not an accurate reflection of his life,” Toobin said.
ESPN’s award-winning documentary, “O.J.: Made in America” and the FX miniseries, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” revived public interest in the case and, with ESPN, likely played a part in that network’s decision to televise the parole hearing live. Comedian W. Kamau Bell at one point tweeted that it felt like he was watching unedited footage from “Made in America.”
Hours before the parole hearing, the A&E Network announced it was making a two-hour movie, to be televised in October, about Simpson’s armed robbery case.