Thursday FOX announced that on March 11, it will air a two-hour special based on an interview that O.J. Simpson did back in 2006. At the time we called the show “If I Did It.” The special was part of a deal that 21st Century Fox had with Judith Regan to publish a book in which Simpson doesn’t admit to murdering his wife, Nicole, and her friend Ron Goldman, but if he had, here’s how he would have done it.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that FOX is airing this special, now called “O.J. Simpson: The Lost Confession?,” directly against the premiere of “American Idol” on ABC. They probably don’t want egg on their face if “AI” returns with an impressive number, so instead of their animated shows, they are airing this, probably at great cost to their bottom line. I know because I was there at the beginning of this story.
Sadly, my connection to O.J. Simpson and these horrific murders started way before I moved over to FOX from NBC. I was at NBC in 1994 when we made a pilot called “Frogmen,” which starred O.J. Simpson, who was a close friend of our, boss Don Ohlmeyer. I still remember the development meeting where Don asked us all if we were OK with casting O.J. in this pilot given Don’s connection to him. Someone sitting next to me muttered to me that this guy had a history of marital abuse, but we knew it was a done deal.
There was a rumor at the time that O.J. used a knife from the “Frogmen” pilot to murder his victims. And, as Brian Lowry detailed in the L.A. Times back in 2000, there was a point in Simpson’s murder trial that the prosecution discussed using the pilot as evidence because of a scene where O.J.’s character holds a knife to another character’s throat. They opted against it eventually.
If memory serves me, we didn’t pick up the pilot, and about a month after we returned from the upfront, the murders occurred and O.J. was arrested. Given Ohlmeyer’s connection to O.J. I wanted to protect us all, so I went around the Burbank building and collected every “Frogmen” cassette, went up to Don’s office, put them all on his big standing desk and said, “This is every cassette of ‘Frogmen.’ If this gets out, you cannot blame any of us.” I will never regret doing that.
Over the next year or so, we dealt with Don’s dedication to his friend and, sadly, watched its effect on him. We were in a meeting when his assistant, Sandy Beach, came in to inform us that there was a verdict. Don dismissed everyone and then called me back in, where I sat with him in silence for quite a while.
A while after the verdict Don called Warren Littlefield and me up to his office and thanked us for keeping the place going and never letting our personal feelings toward O.J. or him interfere with keeping NBC on top as the Must-See network. It was a very emotional meeting.
Don then arranged for an exclusive O.J. interview with either “Dateline” or “Today,” I don’t quite remember. A day or so before it was to happen, NBC president Bob Wright put the kibosh on it. Ohlmeyer was beside himself. I remember the late-night phone call from Don, who had had a few and went on for two hours about why.
I thought my O.J. days were behind me. Uh, nope.
Now I’m at FOX, and Judith Regan, who had a publishing deal with News Corp.-owned HarperCollins, made a deal for this O.J. book. I may be a bit wrong about this, but I believe I was in a meeting with Rupert Murdoch, Mike Darnell and our boss (either Gail Berman or Peter Liguori at the time). During the meeting Rupert tells us about this book and that part of the deal was that O.J. would do an interview we could air as a special. I filed it away.
I believe it was over a year after the meeting when word finally got out that Regan was putting out this book. I remembered Rupert’s words and called my partner-in-crime Darnell to ask him if he remembered the conversation. He did. “Let’s go down to see Peter,” I said.
Liguori (who was now head of entertainment) was in his office, and we told him about the potential special. He did not say a word, just picked up the phone and I believe called Peter Chernin, the president and COO of News Corp. Next thing I knew, we were doing the special. It was all hush-hush. Very few people knew it was happening. I personally never saw the footage or the final product, but Mike regaled me with how terrifying the whole thing was.
Once it was in the can, we made a decision as to when we would air it. It was in the fall of 2006. I was in New York City to attend a panel with the other schedulers. I believe it was some sales convention, and Matt Roush was the moderator. When I arrived in the city I got a call from Liguori that he was calling his direct reports together and was going to tell them about the special; immediately after we would be putting out a press release. He told me to call in.
That was one of the most surreal phone calls ever. Peter and Mike laid everything out and asked if there were any questions. There was dead silence in the room. “Uh, Peter,” I finally said, “I’m in New York and tomorrow and I’m going to be on a panel in a big room with lots of TV writers. What the f**k am I supposed to do?”
Thank God for Elissa Johansmeier, our New York press and publicity person. We talked through what would be said, and I stuck to her side at the event. FOX always sucked in the fall, so for the first part of the panel Roush pretty much ignored me, but eventually he asked me for the rationale for the special. To be honest, I don’t remember what I said. I was pretty numb during the session. Once it was over Elissa grabbed me, and we exited the building.
Within a few days, the special was pulled. Sales was in revolt, affiliates were refusing to air it, and Rupert finally realized that this might not be the best idea. I assumed that was the last we would see of this, but suddenly my Twitter feed exploded Thursday afternoon.
I’ll be watching “American Idol,” and good luck to FOX. I hope for their sake it accomplishes everything they hope it will accomplish for them.