Facing mutiny by its affiliate stations and a storm of public criticism, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. yesterday canceled a "sweeps" television special and a book in which O.J. Simpson was to describe how he would have killed former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman.
The highly unusual move of canceling both a heavily promoted book and a two-night primetime program on the eve of their appearance suggests that there are still lines that the public doesn't want crossed - despite a conventional wisdom that says tabloid and reality TV have hopelessly debased popular culture in recent years.
Murdoch's decision underscores how the Simpson case continues to serve as a barometer of societal values more than a decade after the former football star's acquittal in criminal court of the murders of Brown and Goldman. (He was held liable for the deaths in a civil case.)
The so-called "murder trial of the century" helped propel cable TV news in the mid-1990s, and the instantaneous and widely negative outcry to the latest project has reflected the emergence of newer forms of media, such as blogs and online news sites, in the decade since.
"I and senior management agree with the American public that this was an ill-considered project," Murdoch, the CEO and chairman of News Corp., said in a statement yesterday. "We are sorry for any pain this has caused the families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson."
In the publishing world, it is also relatively rare for a book to be pulled from the shelves after publication and rarer still for a book to be withdrawn before it has hit the market. Advance orders for If I Did It, published by ReganBooks, which is also owned by News Corp., had been strong but not sensational. The book's cover provocatively had the word "If" in white letters and "I Did It" in bolder red type.
Murdoch's Fox television network faced mounting affiliate defections across the country.
While a dozen affiliates from two small chains, Pappas Telecasting and LIN Television, announced over the weekend that they would not carry the program, scheduled to air Nov. 27 and 29, such major chains as Tribune Broadcasting and Baltimore-based Sinclair Broadcast Group appeared to be coming to the same conclusion yesterday afternoon when Murdoch pulled the plug.
"Yee-hah - that's my reaction to the cancellation," said John Riggle, general manager of WPMT-TV (Channel 43) in Harrisburg, Pa., a Tribune station.
"I am so happy that Fox decided not to air the special. We've been getting so many e-mails and calls from viewers who are opposed to it. What were they thinking [at Fox] when they decided to make it in the first place?"
Bill Fanshawe, general manager of WBFF-TV (Channel 45) in Baltimore, said that Sinclair, which owns 19 Fox affiliates, was in a groupwide discussion about the special, O.J. Simpson: If I Did It, Here's How It Happened, when the decision came down from Fox.
"Most of the station managers thought the program was in bad taste," he said. "I am glad Fox made the decision not to air it."
Three years ago, CBS made a similar decision during November "sweeps" when it canceled a docudrama about Ronald Reagan's presidency on the eve of its premiere. It was responding to criticism that the producers made up dialogue, which had Reagan describing AIDS as divine retribution for homosexuality. But the two-night film still aired on Showtime, which, like CBS, is owned by Viacom.
Most recently, ABC made last-minute changes in a miniseries, The Path to 9/11, that blamed the Clinton administration for not going after Osama bin Laden. But the miniseries aired and still offered a negative depiction of the Clinton administration's anti-terrorism efforts.
"Given the significant and really vehement opposition of the Fox affiliates, plus the growing opposition of the public, this is both a business decision and basic common sense decision," said Bob Steele, senior ethicist at the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based media training center and think tank, of the Simpson case.
"The negative feelings about O.J. Simpson have been so strong from so many quarters, that the idea of the book and the TV show just did not sit well with anyone who exhibited any moral fiber. Frankly, I'm astounded Fox didn't foresee all the negative reaction."
But Fox has been a leader in tabloid and reality TV shows with such specials as When Animals Attack - a "sweeps" series that featured animals in conflict with humans and each other. The network has become number one with young viewers in part by leading the way in lowest-common-denominator programming.
Murdoch and the network became a force in American media in the 1980s after he made a fortune in the no-holds-barred world of tabloid newspapers in Britain and Australia.
"There's this feeling by some that the general public has a bottomless pit of an appetite for the most depraved things, but I think the reaction to this special goes against that," said Paul Levinson, professor of media studies at Fordham University.
"I think that over the long run, people can see the difference between truth and falsity, and that they are repulsed by garbage and material that takes advantage of a horrible situation for material gain. I think what we're seeing here is an example of that - the public saying there are things that people don't want to see."
The Simpson book cracked the top 20 list on Amazon.com over the weekend, but by yesterday afternoon, when its cancellation was announced, the book had fallen to No. 51, according to the Associated Press.
HarperCollins spokeswoman Erin Crum told the news agency that some copies had already been shipped to stores but would be recalled, and all copies would be destroyed.
While it is rare for a book to be pulled because of public opposition, it is more common to do so because of plagiarism.
The Simpson book and television special appear to be in a unique league altogether in the virulent reaction they have evoked from the public and the very TV stations that are allied with Murdoch.
"On some level, this is grass-roots revulsion," said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington-based research institute affiliated with Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.
"I haven't heard anyone yet make the First Amendment argument that, hey, this is egregious censorship. What's fascinating is that the O.J. Simpson trial was a gaping wound in our society that had maybe healed over, and this threatened to reopen it.
"People were not supportive of him getting another bite at the apple."