O.J. Simpson had nine months to tell his story. He didn’t speak. His lawyers said, “We can’t risk it.” So he sat silent during his trial, as experts suggested he killed his ex-wife and her friend in cold blood. He sat silent, and he won his freedom. And after the verdict, one of his lawyers admitted,
“Had he talked, one mistake would have ruined him.”

That doesn’t seem to worry O.J. tonight, when he gets an hour of uninterrupted network TV to tell his version of the story — as part of a three-hour extravaganza “Dateline NBC.” Then again, why should O.J. worry? His freedom is no longer at stake. The perky Katie Couric and dour Tom Brokaw are hardly Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden. O.J. is back to the business he left: the image business.

And from where he sits, he can only go up.

So he will come on TV tonight, and millions will watch, and the sad truth is more people will decide his guilt or innocence based on his eyes, his voice and what he says to two TV employees than on what they saw for nearly a year in court. We are Americans. We watch, therefore we believe.

Simpson knows this. So do the people advising him. The right TV moment can change your life. Think of Ronald Reagan embarrassing Jimmy Carter during the debates with “There you go again.” Next thing you knew, Reagan was president.

So O.J. will be interviewed — not in an open press conference, where anyone can ask a tough question, but in a closed TV studio, at his old network, NBC, through a deal set up by an exec and old friend, Don Ohlmeyer.

O.J. seems comfortable. Why not? He’s an actor. And anyone who thinks he isn’t practicing his lines doesn’t understand public relations.

Which is what this is all about.

And it’s shameful. Money, money, money

Not because he’s being interviewed. Let’s make that clear. He deserves a chance to tell his story, and any decent journalist would interview him, just as they would have interviewed Lee Harvey Oswald. It is not the interview that is disturbing. It’s that O.J. dictated the terms. That he chose the network. That he got it live and prime time. And that NBC, in a stone-face attempt to hide its glee, is telling people how it won’t make any money on the broadcast, since it won’t air commercials during the interview part. “We will actually lose $1.4 million,” said Andy Lack, the head of NBC News.

Hmm. Beware of people who brag about how much money they’re losing. It usually means they’re making it somewhere else.

Let’s play straight here, fellas. Naturally, NBC won’t air commercials during the interview. What company would risk having its ad appear seconds after Simpson says something that outrages millions of people? Instead, the companies put commercials in the hour before and the hour after the interview. They know they’ll have a huge audience for both. It’s like the Super Bowl: a pregame show and a postgame show.

Ask yourself a simple question: If this thing isn’t about ratings and money — why are they making it three hours long?

Which brings us to the advertisers. I asked NBC for a list, but a spokesman told me, “It’s not our policy to reveal names of sponsors.” The spokesman did say that none of them canceled its scheduled ads.

This means: 1) they have no problem with the program or 2) they can’t resist the huge rating it’s bound to get.

Either way is disgusting. Because if nothing else, they are giving a known wife beater a perfect stage to redeem himself — and the victim of his abuse can’t respond. She’s dead. The rest of the story

And this is the real issue here. Simpson may or may not be guilty of killing his ex-wife, Nicole, but he is certainly guilty of beating her to a pulp. That was his voice screaming, “Bitch! I’ll kill you!” on a 911 tape. That was his wife screaming desperately for help. How can anyone endorse a three-hour TV special for such a person? Any woman who has been abused by a violent husband will sit there tonight in disbelief.

And here is what they’ll likely see: O.J. crying over his past sins. Sounding sincere. And quite possibly lying through his teeth.

Cynical? Check out an issue of New York magazine from a few weeks ago — before the verdict. In a story called “The Rehabilitation of O.J.,” five celebrity publicists — what a job — predicted what they would do if O.J. were acquitted:

This is from the publicist who handles Nancy Kerrigan: “O.J. would have to pursue a course of profound humility . . .”

From the publicist who handles George Steinbrenner: “He can’t be exuberant by any means . . .”

From the publicist who handles Mia Farrow: “I’d let him do one TV interview . . . with someone believable like Barbara Walters . . . to prove he’s really a nice guy.”

Cynical? If you’re not cynical about celebrity, you’re deaf.

So the dance begins tonight. Who knows, Simpson may waltz all the way back to a TV job. We are, after all, a visual society. We like stars. We fall for looks.

But after all is said and done, tonight’s three-hour special will serve only two main purposes: to rebuild O.J. and to sell a lot of soap.

If you think those are worthwhile causes, by all means, watch the whole thing. And heaven help you.

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