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How the O.J. Simpson Verdict Changed the Way We All Watch TV

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It’s been 20 years since more than 150 million viewers — 57% of the country — tuned in to watch the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial at 10 a.m. on Oct. 3, 1995. The massive viewership of the verdict’s live broadcast was a fitting end to the saga that had captivated the entire nation since the infamous white Bronco chase of the previous June, and its legacy in the media still lasts today.

Football star Simpson had been on trial for the double-murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman. On the day of the verdict, jury deliberations only took four hours, far less than the nation expected after months of proceedings. TIME reporters and editors, caught slightly off-guard, scrambled to send reinforcements to Los Angeles for plenty of on-the-ground reporting. Planes crammed with journalists departed from across of the country, all headed to LAX. (One TIME correspondent named hers “the O.J. Express.”) The issue that resulted from that resulted from that reporting featured a cover image of Simpson smiling in court behind the words “We, the jury in the above entitled action, find the defendant, Orenthal James Simpson, not guilty of the crime of murder…”

The story inside included a retelling of the verdict that might have been familiar to many Americans, though the players were different. Like their millions of fellow citizens, a group including officers, prosecutors and friends gathered around a television in the court building to watch what would happen:

Upstairs about 40 people crowded around the single television, some sitting on the floor, some on tables, a few in chairs. Plainclothes L.A.P.D. officers mingled with young clerks for whom The People v. Orenthal James Simpson was the first exposure to the practice of law. In the room too was an assembly of friends of the prosecution, including Ron Shipp, and Nicole’s friend Candace Garvey. Also present were Garvey’s famous husband Steve, the retired baseball player, and Olympian Bruce Jenner and his wife Kris, who was at one time married to [Simpson’s lawyer] Robert Kardashian. While the court clerk read the verdict, Shipp closed his eyes and gripped a friend’s hand.

As the words ‘not guilty’ sounded, as an uncertain smile flickered across Simpson’s face, the watchers were frozen—until Marcia Clark’s assistant Patti Jo Fairbanks leapt from her chair. ‘Oh, God, I gotta get the families up here,’ she cried. Her sudden movement set the others talking or crying like a lot of windup toys. Bruce Jenner stared at the screen, muttering, ‘You got away with murder, you got away with murder’ over and over.

And it wasn’t just viewership numbers that made the image of interested observers crowding around a television set an appropriate one. The world had followed every turn of the case so closely that the trial would permanently change the news cycle and media patterns. Americans had never been so consumed by a single news story. They were forgoing scripted television dramas and soap operas to watch months of trial developments, Entertainment Weekly reported on Oct. 13, 1995. Magazines and newspapers like TIME profiled the officers, attorneys and surrounding figures in the trial, who eventually took on a celebrity level of fame. Court TV and CNN covered every aspect of the trial — an unprecedented standard for the 16 months of legal developments — and people followed along. The trial, culminating in the verdict’s broadcast from within the courtroom, created some of the most intense early demand for the current 24-hour news cycle and sowed the seeds for the reality television boom to follow. (And no one at the time could have guessed how much impact the fame of one of those in-court celebrities, Robert Kardashian, would have on entertainment.)

But, while so many Americans were watching the same announcement on TV, not everyone saw the same thing.

The debate about race in America that had taken hold of national conversation during the trial was only intensified by the verdict. (TIME itself drew criticism when the magazine darkened Simpson’s mugshot during the cover design process for the issue directly after the car chase. “I have looked at thousands of covers over the years and chosen hundreds,” managing editor James R. Gaines wrote in the following issue. “I have never been so wrong about how one would be received.”) After the trial was over, the nation seemed to split along racial lines. Many thought this was an example of another black man who had been unfairly prosecuted, while others faulted the predominantly black jury for letting him off.

TIME had examined the escalating racial rhetoric used in the courtroom and media during the trial with a cover emblazoned with the question, “O.J. and Race: Will the verdict split America?” The magazine answered its own question the week following the verdict:

At least there was one moment of visible black-and-white unity last week. It occurred on Tuesday, shortly after 10 a.m. Pacific time, when crowds of citizens, gathered together in the streets like extras in a War of the Worlds movie of the 1950s, stood staring up at outdoor television screens, waiting for the word.

They were united, briefly, in an anxious silence of the heart. As soon as the verdict was read, however, they split apart; they could watch themselves do it on the split screens. On one side jubilation, on the other dismay. Afterward it was said that America should have seen this coming, that the division of the races cut so deep, it ought to have been obvious that two nations had always been hiding in one.

Read the TIME special report from 1995, here in the TIME Vault: Making the Case

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Write to Julia Zorthian at julia.zorthian@time.com