O. J. Simpson's first television interview since his acquittal is scheduled to air tonight and, like the double murder trial itself, controversy is part of the package.
Simpson will be interviewed live at 10 p.m. by Ed Gordon, veteran news anchorman for the Black Entertainment Television cable channel. The interview, which will be held in Los Angeles at an undisclosed site, will air as part of a program titled "O. J. Simpson: Beyond the Verdict," which starts at 9:30.
At issue is whether BET made any concessions to get the interview in its negotiations with Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., Simpson's defense attorney.
BET executives said Simpson will not be paid for the interview, nor will restrictions be placed on what questions can be asked. But they declined comment yesterday on whether Simpson would be allowed to use the interview to promote his new video.
Cable News Network (CNN) said it rejected a proposed interview with Simpson last week, because of conditions that would have allowed Simpson to use the interview as a "sales promotion" for the video.
"There have been no restrictions placed on the questions we have been allowed to ask," said Jefferi K. Lee, president of the BET Networks. "We, like all other media outlets, have been seeking an interview with Mr. Simpson for months. We are pleased that he has agreed to speak with BET News, and we look forward to being the first network to bring it to America."
Tom Johnson, president of CNN, said Simpson agreed last week to an interview with Greta Van Susteren, the co-host of CNN's "Burden of Proof." But CNN rejected the plan when it looked as if the interview "would be used as part of a promotional campaign in the sale of Mr. Simpson's new tape," he said.
One sticking point was a demand that the 800-number being used to sell the video be displayed on screen at some point during or adjacent to the interview. The video, produced by infomercial magnate Tony Hoffman, is Simpson's account of his actions on the night of the murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman. Many cable and broadcast outlets, like NBC's cable channel CNBC, have refused to even accept advertisements for the video.
Johnson said CNN has been pursuing an interview with Simpson since the trial, but has consistently refused to accept any conditions.
Last year, following his acquittal, Simpson agreed to a live prime-time interview with NBC. But the interview was canceled when NBC News refused to accept last-minute restrictions from Cochran on what questions could be asked.
Simpson subsequently initiated a telephone interview with a television correspondent at the New York Times, which the paper published the next day.
Both Johnson and Andy Lack, president of NBC News, said their organizations will continue to seek unrestricted interviews with Simpson.
Johnson said CNN will cover tonight's BET interview "as a news event -- if it comes off."
Tonight's Simpson package is a major event for BET News. It will either enhance or damage its mainstream credibility based on how it handles Simpson -- not only in the interview, but in a pre-interview look at his life since the verdict and an hour-long call-in show following the interview.
The channel, which debuted in 1980 as the first black-oriented national programming service, has been in the news business since 1986. It is now available in 44.2 million homes, and produces such top-notch public affairs programs as "Teen Summit."
On his interview show, "Conversation With Ed Gordon," the newsman has interviewed the likes of George Bush and Nelson Mandela. In 1992, he interviewed Marion Barry in federal prison -- the first interview given by the mayor of Washington after being imprisoned on a drug conviction.
Gordon could not be reached for comment yesterday. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he said he didn't know why Cochran and Simpson had chosen BET.
"I've never met Simpson personally," he said. "We, like everyone else on the planet, have been going after him."