Posted by: Jon Fine on November 21, 2006
News Corp. made a number of stunning miscalculations in the handling of O.J. Simpson’s sort-of-confessional If I Did It, and chief among them is that it forgot the difference between the book business and the TV business.
The book business depends solely on the consumer, and gets goods to them through a network of merchants that, unsurprisingly, have a very strong sense of the First Amendment. A book as nakedly repulsive as O.J.’s could be, say, kept behind the counter and sold only on request. A big chain like Borders could—and did—announce it would sell it, but would donate the proceeds to a non-profit organization for victims of domestic violence.
The network TV business is entirely ad-supported. It’s also dependent on local-market station owners subject to local pressures. And the range of programming that can appear on local stations is far more constricted than what books can be sold in the local bookstore.
Fox lost sight of the fact that the O.J. special—excuse me, that would be two O.J. specials, though why they thought anyone would stick around for both is kinda beyond me—is the sort of thing that would send any advertiser sprinting for the exits. (That they did, by the way, is rather astounding.) Even if they’d scored massive ratings they would have taken a hit in advertiser backlash. So the company couldn’t make much off the broadcast, even with Super Bowl-sized ratings. And that doesn’t even get into the obvious miscalculation that many local Fox affiliates were not going to want to touch this. Art Slusark, the spokesman for Meredith Corp, which owns Fox affiliates, said advertiser reaction was “a thousand to one, with people not wanting to be involved with it.”
(Sudden thought: Who was the one?)
I bet that had Fox dropped the plans for the TV tie-in, the book would have been published through its HarperCollins imprint. Enough booksellers would have weathered the outcry. (And outcry always equals sales.)
All that said, I am surprised that the project was actually called off. And I give it two weeks, max, before another publisher snaps the book up. (UPDATE: Many readers have correctly pointed out that rights issues may preclude a sale elsewhere, and that at least one obvious potential publisher, Michael Viner of Phoenix Books, has said he won’t touch it.)