On the evening of June 17, 1994, approximately 190 million eyeballs were locked on their television screens watching an unbelievable scene unfold before their eyes -- a white Ford Bronco carrying football star Orenthal James Simpson meandering along Los Angeles’ freeways with a contingent of law enforcement officers from agencies all over L.A. City and County.
So fixated on the chase were viewers across the country that Domino’s Pizza did its best day of sales ever at the time, as millions refused to pull themselves away from their TV screens to make dinner.
While this was certainly not the first-ever televised pursuit, it’s certainly the one that began Los Angeles’ love affair with these kinds of pursuits. It was also a turning point in how major media organizations covered breaking news in real time and the way they devoted resources to doing so.
All of the major cable networks interrupted their regular programming to broadcast the chase, as it was the first time that someone as famous as O.J. was had been accused of committing crime as heinous as he was. An NBA playoff game between the Rockets and Knicks was preempted so that viewers could watch O.J. crawl along SoCal freeways with the majority of Los Angeles’ police force in tow.
A quarter of a century later, the televised police chase is still a fixture of Los Angeles culture though these days, viewers are just as likely to be following along on their Facebook feeds as they are on television. But how did the O.J. chase change how the media covers police chases and other major breaking news events? How did it change how police handle pursuits tactically?
Patt Morrison, Los Angeles Times columnist and author of several books, most recently “Don’t Stop the Presses!: Truth, Justice, and the American Newspaper” (Angel City Press, April 2018) ; she tweets @pattmlatimes
Judy Muller, professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Southern California and former ABC News correspondent who covered the O.J. chase as well as his criminal and civil trials; she tweets @judusc