By Michael E. Miller
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As the gavel finally falls on the O.J. Simpson trial, so too ends one of the greatest advertising coups in Miami history. Since May, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Lance Ito has been tacitly endorsing the only Miami television station that sent a reporter to California to cover the trial. Yup, right there on the bench, next to Ito's collection of hourglasses and his IBM notebook computer, was a symbol of Miami's hottest export: sensational news.
Judge Ito drinks from a WSVN-TV (Channel 7) mug.
"We're honored and flattered," trumpeted Charlie Folds, WSVN's director of community and public relations, this past week. "No matter what the verdict in the trial, our mugs will go down in history."
Jeff Liebman, WSVN's satellite coordinator in Miami, deserves credit for landing the product placement of the century in the trial of the century. Earlier this year, as he watched day after day of Simpson-related testimony, Liebman noticed that the judge had begun using different coffee mugs. At the outset, Ito had favored a mug bearing the call letters of a local public radio station, but that drinking vessel had been supplanted by mugs from other Los Angeles radio outlets. Doubtless inspired by his station's natural link with murder, Liebman sent Ito four WSVN mugs, along with some WSVN pens and WSVN T-shirts. Having noted that the judge had requested (O.J.-free) entertainment to pacify the sequestered jurors, Liebman also included in the care package a few tapes of the WSVN-produced program 7:30. "We can't tell if the jurors actually watched the show," Liebman admits sadly.
Though a mug bearing the telltale 7-in-a-circle logo made its first appearance on Ito's desk back in May, during the final weeks of the trial the judge sipped from WSVN almost exclusively. "For some reason, and oddly enough, he likes our mug. He uses it more than any other mug he uses, even though it is just a cheap plastic mug," declares an astonished Liebman. "I don't know if he wears the T-shirts, because it's hard to see through that robe he wears. Maybe he's mowing his lawn in a Channel 7 T-shirt! That would be quite an endorsement."
The mugs, it would seem, are endorsement enough. Nan Sheri Lieberman, subscription coordinator at Los Angeles's public radio station KCRW, can quantify Ito's sway over consumers. In her station's most recent on-air fundraising drive, the first since the trial began with Ito drinking from a KCRW cup, she collected $860,000 in pledges in only ten days -- by far the best fundraiser in station history. Lieberman quietly downplays the Ito factor. "This is a great station," she explains. "We have a lot of programming that's a lot more interesting than the O.J. trial. We're the station that first broadcast Leonard Nimoy reading Jewish Short Stories from Eastern Europe and Beyond."
Although WSVN has yet to see a direct financial windfall from the endorsement, there already has been a discernible run on the station's mugs. Until Ito began sipping for 7, the 300 mugs the station ordered for advertisers and staff had been sitting around gathering dust. "These are mugs that a couple of months ago they couldn't give away," says Jeff Liebman. "Now [because of Ito] they're the hottest item on TV. I have two requests for mugs on my desk right now."
The cup coup has other Miami media outlets scrambling to catch up. WPLG-TV (Channel 10), which normally attempts to treat double murders as news rather than entertainment, was not above pursuing a product placement. "We sent Judge Ito a 'Keep It On 10' button," says Oscar Welch, the station's director of programming and promotion. "But he wouldn't wear it." Last week Nelly Rubio, community public relations director for WFOR-TV (Channel 4), was considering ways she could better link her station with the trial. "I just ordered a big blowup of the 4 logo. If I could get it into the courtroom, that would show some resourcefulness on our part," she mused. "I think we're going to have to meet on this over the weekend."
Though a spokeswoman from Judge Ito's office could not explain why the judge favors WSVN's mugs, Charlie Folds suspects it's because the mugs are lightweight and eye-catching. "My best guess is he likes the color blue," Folds ventures. "It's a great color blue." Ito himself was cryptic in his praise. "Thanks for the great coffee mugs," he wrote in a letter to the station. "I gave three of them to my court clerk and two court reporters. I will use the fourth mug myself. It will make a nice addition to my growing collection."
Recognizing a potential opportunity, alert station flacks responded to Ito's gracious thank-you by promptly shipping off several additional mugs, requesting that the judge autograph them for an upcoming charity auction. Alas, it was not to be. "I am flattered to receive such a request," Ito wrote in a second letter. "Unfortunately, the Canon of Ethics governing the conduct of California judges forbids us from participating in fundraising activities. The theory is that litigants and lawyers would feel compelled to contribute to a charity supported by a judge." Ito did, however, reaffirm his affection for WSVN by keeping the extra mugs.