It was January of 1995. My mother was at home, dying of cancer, but I had to work. I remember standing in the hair and makeup room at All My Children watching the O.J. Simpson trial pre-empt all the effort we had made to put a show on air that day; hard work that would not be rerun elsewhere or ever again. It was a very defeating moment. We all knew that the constant interruption of our daily story would mean the loss of viewers. I remember an actor standing next to me (I think it was Michael Nader) saying, “Well, this is it. This is the death of soaps.”
It’s taken me a long while to figure out what he really meant, but I think I may have a grasp of it. Of course, I am only one person and one opinion. I always want to hear what you have to say, so please feel free to comment below and add whatever you think I may have missed, or share whatever thoughts you’d like.
What O.J. did that day, or rather, what the media did with O.J.’s behavior, changed our tastes in entertainment. It may be sad to say, but in that moment we became a bit more like the spectators in the Roman Coliseum, watching real gladiators fight to the death, and less like the Greeks watching reenactments of killings (although they had their share of real sacrifices, or so I’ve read.) The point is, watching a real man who was once a great American hero melt down to the lowest common denominator of human experience was riveting.
The TV networks have had a huge part to play in what some might call our “moral demise.” I would like to refer to the movie Network by Paddy Chayefsky. You know, the one where they shout out the window, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”? In the film, an ambitious producer focuses on sensationalizing real stories in order to grab the audiences attention and therefore raise ratings. This movie was way, way ahead of it’s time.
The O.J. Simpson trial was the beginning of the “news” story becoming more relevant than anything a soap could deliver at that time. One major factor in it’s draw was the fact that O.J. was not only a national hero, but an African American man. The very color of his skin dragged back into the light the whole huge history of “black” men in America. This conversation was difficult to address on soap operas, although the writers tried many times to do so. To this day, issues of race dominates our American social consciousness. Trayvon Martin is a tragic example.
So O.J. was probably pissed about the prejudice he no doubt encountered in his life, but he was also a handsome, really successful man. Many men looked up to him, admired his ability, and his life. Why else was he so angry?
He was getting a divorce.
I have never seen such rage as in a man who is getting divorced. It seems to shake him to the core. When a man defines himself by his role as a husband and father, this cutting of ties can bring out a lot of anger. I think the feelings of shame and failure that are brought up are difficult for most men to deal with.
I also think it’s quite possible that a lot of men at the time were not so thrilled about women demanding equal rights, equal pay, equal treatment. Add to this women’s developing sexual liberation, and you’ve got a lot of control issues that are going to have to be dealt with in the general male consciousness. O.J. became the focal point for all this emotion. Throughout O.J.’s trial the unasked questions pulsing in many people’s consciousness were not just, “did a black man kill a white woman?” but also “did a husband and father kill his wife and the mother of his children because she was leaving him for a younger man with whom she was having a sexual relationship?” and the worst, “Did Nicole bring on the violence because she demanded liberation from her husband?” which is akin to saying “She asked for it.”
Right or wrong, the tensions under the O.J. Simpson trial were so much more truthful and relevant to our current state of social awareness that, although still charming and entertaining and well made, soap operas were instantly seen as irrelevant and hopelessly out of date. This wasn’t always the case.
It wasn’t the daytime writers fault that there wasn’t as much edge cutting material in 1995 as there was in 1980. As corporations began to acquire soap operas as a product, it became more and more difficult for daytime writers to tell stories that might outrage a percentage of the audience. Every ratings point counted to the ad-centric culture of Network Television. Instead of being able to tell the more risky stories that might have kept all kinds of audiences interested, corporatized soaps were forced to create more general story lines that often became ridiculous in their attempt to avoid being offensive.
No wonder people stopped watching in droves.
The story of O.J. and Nicole was also REAL. They weren’t actors with scripts, they were real people with dramas as big as any soap could manufacture. O.J.’s need for attention, even love from the media was another way in which he reflected something very true in American lives. Many people wanted a little bit of fame to experience for themselves. Others were riveted by the risk of others. Either way, the audience was becoming the star.
This article was originally published on the blog Professional Muse.