From chase to trial: How O.J. Simpson changed TV

O.J. TV gripped Americans for nearly 16 months back in the ‘90s.

The O.J. Simpson Show — with its centerpiece a former football great on trial for double homicide — commandeered the media, especially television, along with a spellbound audience. It began as a juicy crime story: the ex-wife of a celebrity and a male acquaintance slain outside her home on June 12, 1994.

Then things took a shocking turn: Simpson, initially seen as the grieving former husband, became the accused and audiences couldn’t get enough of it.

"The OJ Simpson trial was for legal TV what Wrestlemaina was for sports entertainment. It engaged millions of people across the globe. It jump-started the careers of many legal correspondents, and as a producer, it was one of the most exciting times in history to be working in television,” Mark Goldman, a former producer for Court TV Radio and founder of, told FOX411.

O.J. TV erupted in full force late in the afternoon of June 17, with Simpson (charged with the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman) the focus of a slow-speed police chase in his white Ford Bronco, apparently considering suicide en route. More than 90 million Americans witnessed Simpson eventually surrender in the driveway of his Brentwood home.

"You didn't dare turn away," said Greta Van Susteren, now a Fox News Channel host, who became a legal analyst for CNN's trial coverage. "Everybody was watching it, live, wondering if O.J. was going to blow his brains out. That's when the hook was set for everything that followed."

What followed was labeled the Trial of the Century. With cameras allowed in the courtroom, it was the first big TV trial. And it had the perfect headliner.

"Here was a man who had transcended sports and even race, a guy who had achieved single-name status," explained Jack Ford, now CBS News Legal Analyst, who covered the trial for NBC News.

O.J. kept viewers hooked with jury selection that fall, through the trial's start in January 1995, then through months of proceedings, carried gavel-to-gavel by numerous networks and recapped daily on numerous shows.

“That’s what sparked [Court TV] and really got people watching court program television, 100 percent,” Goldman explained. “People were so interested in O.J. Everybody was watching Court TV and other affiliated shows 24 hours a day. It was O.J. all day every day.”

It swamped the airwaves, from network evening newscasts (where the Simpson case was the most heavily covered story of 1995) to magazine shows and talk shows.

"At the beginning we knew it was a big story," Ford said, "but I don't think any of us anticipated how the public would be so invested in it."

The case, with all its constituent parts, became second-nature to viewers: Nicole's front walkway on Bundy Drive and O.J.'s towering hedge on Rockingham Avenue. Ron Goldman's father's upturned mustache. O.J. houseguest Kato Kaelin's flowing locks. Judge Lance Ito on the bench pecking at his laptop. Robert Kardashian (the father of future TV dominatrices Kim, Khloe and Kourtney) as O.J. lawyer and hanger-on. And so many more, including O.J., of course, the always somber, stone-faced, handsome leading-man.

The jury was unseen, out of camera range, but it, like the rest of the Simpson circus, was scrutinized, analyzed and argued about. And not just by the scores of on-air commentators.

The Simpson case was Topic A among the watching hordes, and television welcomed their opinions. Thus was O.J. TV a forerunner of today's interactive media.

Geraldo Rivera's nightly CNBC talk show, all-consumed with the Simpson case, invited viewer call-ins. E! solicited viewers' faxes, one of which, shown on camera, advised prosecutor Marcia Clark to "take a pill and chill, or O.J. will walk."

Then on Oct. 3, 1995, the jury's shocking verdict was pronounced. Identical courtroom video was carried by ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and The WB broadcast networks, and by cable channels CNBC, CNN, Court TV, E! Entertainment, ESPN and Headline News, with 91 percent of all TVs in use tuned to this bombshell.

"It was a freak event in television," Van Susteren explained.

With a bland, cramped LA courtroom its main stage, O.J. TV boasted characters, theatrics and novelty ensuring its reign as the Trial for the Ages.

Fox News' Leora Arnowitz and The Associated Press contributed to this report.